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'Jazz Talk' with James Carter Organ Trio

James Carter Trio at the Folly Theater, January 25, 2013. (Photos by Jolene Grabill)

Bob McWilliams,               aka Radio Bob

I had the good fortune to host the Jazz Talk from the stage of the Folly Theater preceding the concert Friday night, January 25, by the James Carter Organ Trio. Three important themes became evident in my discussion with the acclaimed saxophonist James Carter and his bandmates, organist Gerard Gibbs and drummer (and singer) Leonard King, Jr.


The first was community, particularly the musical community in Detroit, where all three musicians grew up. King, the oldest (he was born in 1948), noted that music was in the air everywhere in Detroit during his childhood and beyond. Jazz, R&B, the stirrings of Motown Records, soul and funk was the ocean in which King would be swimming as a child. He noted that, as small children, he and his friends would be singing and imitating musicians such as sax players. That same community proved nurturing to those from later generations, including Carter and Gibbs.


Related to that was the theme of mentorship. King himself was an important mentor to many younger musicians in Detroit, including Carter. When Carter was in his early- to mid-teens, King, who worked at a record store, would drop a big stack of records (many of which were being "cut out" or deleted from the catalogs, and thus available at a low price) at Carter's house every other week, for Carter to absorb. As a child, Carter would hear his mother sing along to jazz on the radio and fell in love with music. Carter's own interest in playing sax was encouraged by a family friend, who would leave his instruments at the Carter family house. Carter, as a child, would sneak in and assemble the sax and pretend to play it. When he was caught doing that by the sax player, he expected to be in BIG trouble. But when the musician saw Carter carefully and lovingly disassemble and put away the sax, he recognized that Carter wanted to be a sax player and encouraged that. The organist, Gerard Gibbs, would hear his father's records, organist Groove Holmes, around the house, and when his father took him to a club to hear and meet Holmes, Gibbs was entranced - and told his parents he wanted an organ. But those were prohibitively expensive, so what Gibbs got were piano lessons. He took every chance he could to play the organ and continued to be mentored by Holmes and, later, by the legendary Jimmy Smith.


The final theme that emerged from the Jazz Talk was of musical continuity within the world of jazz. When I asked Carter about his penchant for exploring the music of saxophonists from the 1930s and 1940s like Chu Berry and Don Byas, combined with his absorption of avant-garde jazz masters (such as Lester Bowie, whom Carter played with as a teen, and sax players like Roscoe Mitchell), Carter became very emphatic about stressing the continuity of the music and ridiculed the notion of splitting jazz up into "swing, bob, hard bop, post bop" and such.

As it happens, that last theme of the Jazz Talk was quite clear during the performance. Carter himself opened the show with an extended sax solo that included elements spanning decades of jazz history, including caresses and shrieks. As the concert went on, Carter showed complete command of all ranges of the soprano, alto and tenor sax, all with an incredibly BIG sound. There were mics for the saxophones, but Carter often stood 20 or more feet away from them and could be heard clear and strong as a bell.


The band put a funky twist on Benny Golson's Killer Joe (Carter played that since it was Golson's birthday) and roared through the aptly titled bluesy number called Lettuce Toss Yo Salad. King, who talked about his first interest in music being singers, and who was singing before he became a drummer, showed off a gorgeous Arthur Prysock influenced voice on I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone, and later he gave a clinic in scat singing on the final number of the night.


Throughout the night, Carter made nods to Kansas Citian Charlie Parker, especially on the encore where he quoted lots of Bird tunes. One thing that was evident throughout was the sheer JOY the three musicians had in playing music together. Gibbs would sometimes lean back with a huge smile while raising his hands in the air above the organ, just relying on his foot pedals to carry the groove. King was a riviting figure, alternating between funk and swinging grooves and he and Carter were often raising eyebrows in delight at each other. There was musical community and continuity in action all through the night.

Bob McWilliams, who earned his B.A. and M.A. in history at the University of Kansas and his J.D. from Harvard Law School, far prefers radio to law. He's hosted jazz programs on KANU and KPR since 1983, and became jazz director and Jazz in the Night's weeknight host in 1996. He also did graduate work in jazz history with the late Dick Wright. He co-hosted the Flint Hills Special for many years, and has produced and hosted Trail Mix, blending contemporary and traditional celtic, folk, bluegrass and beyond, since it began in 1994. He's also active in teaching U.S. History at Johnson County Community College, and is a passionate St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan and Kansas Jayhawk basketball fan, as well as an avid if not particulary talented tennis player. Somehow, he also finds time to be an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction, and indulges his news habit with three daily newspapers and numerous magazines. Bob also founded the nonprofit West Side Folk concert series in Lawrence. "To me, there's nothing quite like 'goosebump music,' the music that makes time slow down and draws you in, away from everything else, and leaves you with goosebumps," Bob said. "I hope listeners enjoy the music on many levels, but I also hope that, on occasion, I can leave them with 'goosebump' moments."