REVIEW: James Carter – After All

Listening to After All, the new release by young Melbourne altoist James Carter, I was taken back to the wonderful Ron Carter Trio gig at Sydney’s Basement in June last year. Like Ron Carter’s spry unit, the James Carter group also works without a drummer.

In music such as jazz, which has always been characterised by propulsive and complex rhythms, the paring away of the drums seems an amputation that risks the whole machine keeling over. But drummer-less jazz groups don’t cut off the rhythm, just the drummer.

The piano-bass-guitar trios of Oscar Peterson and his mentor, Art Tatum, could fly along with the best of them. Ron Carter’s group also could cook, albeit in a simmering way, never boiling over. And it is this simmering dynamic – rather than raw propulsion – that allows for some tasty subtleties and winking interplay between the four members of Carter’s group.

And of course on the ballads it is perfect – ballads are where few jazz drummers rise beautifully, like Grady Tate, and many fail badly, as if they are idling, bored, waiting for the hot stuff to start again. But with no drummer there is no problem. Check the smoky drift of Latin-ballad ‘Tenho Saudades Tuas’ or the dreamlike breathing-in-and-out of ‘Inside the Outside’. Both pieces pick up after a while but never lose their lightness and diaphanous texture.

‘Moments’, with crystalline vocal by Mariel Kokoibutu, is particularly lovely. The mind drifts during these pieces – but not through boredom or ennui but as if in a mist, a haze of reverie. Yes, they are quiet, but spiritually powerful.

All this talk of ‘diaphanous’ and ‘crystalline’ is all very well – but James Carter’s quartet can move with muscle as well. ‘Irish Rose’ (the most African Irish rose I can imagine) has fun, Afro-style, with a shuffle beat – turning it into 3/4, 12/8 and inside out again. Guitarist Christian Meyer’s chirping chops really cut it up.

Meyer gets to howl some blues on ‘Time Continues’ – a track that shows how damn strong is the structural playing of bassist Ben Christensen and piano player Daniel Sheehan. Solid (they are both sparkling soloists as well).

James Carter’s compositions are invigoratingly mature for such a young player – not in a musty way, but in a fully-formed, rounded sense that belies his years. His alto playing throughout has the wry but street-smart rollick of an Art Pepper with a tone that reminds me why I often commit the sacrilege of considering the alto THE jazz saxophone over the tenor. (Check ‘After All’, the album’s title track, for a sun-dappled alto trip as good as any).

This music was forged and developed over an 18-month residency that allowed the quartet to find their voice – a unique and quite brilliant voice; one that is truly worth your time and ears.

After All is released on September 7. James Carter and his Quartet launch the album on Sunday, September 9 at Bennetts Lane, Melbourne.

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