Being dubbed a genius isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Regina Carter, jazz’s most visible and celebrated violinist, found out about the downside of the vaunted designation when the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a coveted “Genius” Fellowship, which led to good natured ribbing from her husband, drummer Alvester Garnett, and the rest of her band.
“Alvester was really excited when I told him I got the grant, then he went online and checked it out and said, ‘You know, they call this thing the ‘genius award’ and you can’t even go around the block without getting lost!’” says Carter, who makes her Freight & Salvage debut 8 p.m. Sunday. “If I do something crazy at home, he’ll say, ‘alright genius.’ I’m always getting razzed by him and the band.”
Not that Carter is complaining. Receiving the $500,000 no-strings grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has allowed her to embark on a series of musical journeys that use her ancestral roots as a point of departure. She spent years exploring music by contemporary African composers, a quest that materialized on her 2010 album Reverse Thread (E1 Entertainment). Fascinated by the fiddle’s seemingly infinite variety of permutations Carter notes that the instrument “has traveled and evolved and been part of many traditions. It seems like every music on the planet has an instrument that reminds me of the violin.”
Over the course of three years, Carter collected material from every corner of the continent. Fully cognizant she wasn’t breaking new ground, she conferred regularly with pianist/composer Randy Weston, whose journeys to Nigeria and Morocco in the 1960s inspired his landmark recordings blending jazz and African forms. She ended up recording compositions by Kenya’s Ayub Ogada, Senegal’s Mamadou Ba, and Mali’s Boubacar Traoré, Habib Koité and Mariam Doumbia, and some of the tunes are still part of the repertoire she presents at the Freight with Garnett, bassist Jesse Murphy and pianist Xavier Davis.
Though Sunday’s show marks her Berkeley debut, Carter is no stranger to the Bay Area. Since releasing her first album in 1995 she’s performed often at Yoshi’s, and was the first jazz artist in residence with SF Performances in 2004-2006. More recently, she premiered a Violin Concerto written for her by composer and jazz pianist Billy Child at the Paramount Theatre in 2011 with the Oakland East Bay Symphony, and served two seasons as a Resident Artistic Director at the SFJAZZ Center, which provided an opportunity to connect with Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola.
“We had played together for the first time at SFJAZZ when I presented a jazz violin show with Sara Caswell and Jenny Scheinman,” Carter says. “Jenny brought in Scott, and it was such a joy to work with him. When Scott had a residency at The Stone in April I got a chance to play with him, Jerome Harris and guitarist Jeff Parker, and he has some amazing music.”
Carter traces her fascination with the violin’s globe-spanning reach to her Detroit upbringing. “Detroit has the largest Chaldean population in the nation,” Carter says, referring to the ancient Christian people of the Near East, also known as Assyrians, who hail mostly from the lands encompassed by present day Iraq, Turkey and Syria. “I was always intrigued by Middle Eastern music. I listened to a lot of Indian classical music, particularly L. Subramaniam.”
After following her ancestral roots to Africa, perhaps it’s not surprising that Carter’s next investigation traced her family’s sojourn from the Deep South to the North. Born in Detroit in 1966, Carter had 13 aunts and uncles on her father’s side of the family, and she got to know some of them and her grandmother on summer visits back down in Alabama. Her latest release, 2014’s Southern Comfort (Sony Masterworks) is a blues and folk-steeped project that evokes her rural roots, while tracing the family’s journey in the Great Migration that saw some six million African Americans leave the South for urban destinations in the north and west.
“My father and his twin were the oldest, and he was the first who migrated north, and ended up getting work at the Ford factory,” Carter says. “The next sibling came up and lived with my parents, and then the next one, but my grandmother stayed in Alabama. We’d go down over the summer for a few weeks, and it was very homey. As an adult looking back, I have memories of getting baths in a bucket out in front of the house and the outhouse out back.”
She arrives in Berkeley in the early stages of the next phase of her exploration, following up on the results of a DNA sample she submitted to Ancestry.com for analysis. The initial results indicate her heritage is 83% West African and 13% Finnish, which may lead her in some unexpected new musical directions. Not that she needed genetic information to seek out new directions. Since moving to New York in the mid-’90s Carter has fearlessly pursued every musical opportunity that’s come her way. She spent six years as a member of the avant-garde String Trio of New York, toured nationally with Wynton Marsalis performing his Pulitzer Prize-winning opus Blood on the Fields, and has collaborated with everyone from Max Roach and Oliver Lake to Mary J. Blige and Aretha Franklin.
While her soaring tone owes much to her close listening to alto saxophonists such as Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker and Arthur Blythe, it was the veteran swing tenorman Big Nick Nicholas who convinced her that she had a lot to learn from singers. After playing a ballad with him he asked her whether she knew the words to the song. When she admitted that she didn’t he told her “then you don’t really know what you’re playing about.”
“So I started listening to vocalists and that helped with my breathing,” she says. “Violin players don’t have to breathe. Now when I play a ballad or a tune, I try to say the words in my head, and I know when I run out of breath, then the bow has to stop. The bow is actually the voice.”
Recommended gig: Richard Waters New Music Festival
Richard Waters, the inventor and builder of the lovely and ethereal instruments known as Waterphonse, used to visit the Bay Area and collaborate with David Michalak’s band, Ghost In the House. When Waters died three years ago, Michalak decided to create an event celebrating Waters and his wondrous instruments, and thus the 3rd Annual Richard Waters New Music Festival returns to the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space on University from 1-10 pm Saturday. Celebrating invented instruments and extended techniques, the festival features brief sets by a wide range of musicians, including a 6:30 pm performance by the Waterphone Orchestra with an introduction by Waters’ daughter Rayme Waters and Brooks Hubbert, who is carrying on Richard Waters’ Waterphone work. The festival concludes with a set by Ghost In The House featuring Karen Stackpole on gongs and percussion, Tom Nunn on inventions, David Michalak on lap steel, John Ingle on saxophones, and Kinji Hayashi’s dance.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
Want to know what else is going on in Berkeley and nearby? Visit Berkeleyside’s new-look Events Calendar. Submit your own events for free if they aren’t there already — and give them featured status for as little as $10 a day.