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Review: Regina Carter/Yazz Ahmed

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Wednesday November 26, 2014

From Jazz Journal

Review: Regina Carter/Jazz Ahmed

Fred Grand enjoys violinist Regina Carter’s hoedown jazz and Yazz Ahmed’s Arab-influenced trumpet playing on the penultimate night of the EFG London Jazz Festival

Many years ago Wayne Horvitz’s quartet Sweeter Than The Day, Robin Holcomb’s quirky vocal albums, Buell Neidlinger’s Buellgrass project and even the folksier side of Julius Hemphill convinced me that country music, blues and jazz could form a cogent alliance. The idea has now gone mainstream, and ever since the breakthrough of Norah Jones “Americana” has gained a new legitimacy in jazz. Bill Frisell and his protégée Jenny Scheinman are currently leading the charge to North America’s heartlands, but few could have predicted that violinist Regina Carter (pictured right) would now be making her own tracks across this increasingly well-worn trail.

She’s no stranger to the concept album but to understand Carter’s rationale for this surprising departure you need first to look at her motives. Her exploration of familial and ancestral roots began with a reappraisal of the songs of her mother’s youth (I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey, 2006), followed by a compelling celebration of African traditions (Reverse Thread, 2010). Her latest album Southern Comfort shifts the focus towards the Deep South, brilliantly re-imagining the music which would have filled the ears of her Alabama coal-mining grandfather. Clearly capturing the public’s imagination, it has been one of the most welcome and unexpected surprises of the year, and on the strength of demand her 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival performance was switched from the South Bank Centre’s Purcell Room to the much larger Queen Elizabeth Hall.

But before Carter took to the stage it was the turn of trumpeter Yazz Ahmed (pictured left) to embark on her own examination of displaced roots. The granddaughter of Terry Brown, trumpet player with Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and John Dankworth amongst others, she produced a compelling 30-minute set inspired by her Arabian heritage. She mixed heady rhythms and staccato modal themes. Her opalescent flugelhorn carried strong echoes of Kenny Wheeler and blended beautifully with George Crowley’s woody bass clarinet. Near-veterans Martin France and Dudley Phillips kept it tight during the unveiling of a new composition specially commissioned for the festival and Ahmed’s vibrant set had been a truly felicitous piece of thematic programming by festival organisers Serious.

After a quick turnaround the stage was handed over to Carter for the remainder of the evening. In a stripped-down version of the Southern Comfort band she was joined by accordionist Will Holshouser, the many guitars of Marvin Sewell, bassist Chris Lightcap, and her ever-present drumming husband Alvester Garnett. Lightcap’s arrangement of Honky Tonkin’ got the show off to a rollicking start, with Garnett’s swamp-infused patterns providing a solid platform for Carter’s expansive solo flight. Sewell seemed to be having some technical problems and momentarily had to bypass his pedal-board, but his buttery vintage Telecaster tones were truly to die for.

Surely one of the most captivating opening tracks on an album for quite some time, Miner’s Child was one of the few pieces not significantly expanded over the album version. Strains of Celtic fiddle introduced Shoo-Rye, and in a nice touch Carter held her smartphone to the mic and played a snippet from an original field recording of the song before her group launched into Laurence Hobgood’s arrangement. Holshouser’s solo was an object lesson in the art of tension and release, while Carter’s went on a quotation spree which included a less than oblique reference to a certain horticulturally informed folk-tune made famous by Percy Grainger.

Whilst the bulk of the music heard on Southern Comfort was unearthed during Carter’s study of field recordings held in the Library of Congress, a notable exception was the Gram Parsons tune Hickory Wind. Sewell unleashed some mean slide guitar which owed as much to the beaches of Hawaii as to Nashville. Richard Bona’s Mandingo Street (from Carter’s Rhythms Of The Heart, 1999) was one of a number of pieces not appearing on the album, and Carter’s very African singing strangely reminded me of the chanting on Bobby Previte’s first Empty Suits album. Pound For Pound, a lilting minor-key waltz, was Carter’s festival commission, and as she explained it reflected her view of London as a city which always offers great “value” to visitors. In a touching announcement Carter also revealed the her first visit to the city had been 17 years ago when she supported Claire Martin at Ronnie Scott’s, and they remain friends to this day.

When you’re working with the building blocks of modern music in their purest form there’s always a likelihood that the results will resonate with an audience, but Carter’s emotional investment in this project made her music particularly vital. A ghostly rendition of the hymn I’m Going Home On The Morning Train brought her deeply satisfying set to a close, and ordinarily it would have marked a perfect ending. But she was never going to be able to leave without an encore, and she chose See See Rider, not Ma Rainey’s famous 12-bar blues but an earlier work song, to draw the show to a close. This is a group which deserves longevity, so let’s hope that Carter returns to the Library of Congress soon and rearranges the entire Lomax collection if need be.

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