On Friday Nov. 2, American jazz violinist Regina Carter and her group the Regina Carter Quartet performed as part of the Fred Sturm Jazz Celebration Weekend in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. Her playing was vibrantly alive and full of many dramatic color shifts and variations in texture and tone. The ensemble, comprised of pianist Xavier Davis, drummer Alvester Garnett and bassist Ed Howard, played with extraordinary sensitivity and balance, each listening clearly to the other and thoughtfully supporting and soloing.
Much of the music on the program was dedicated to the late jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. In 2017, the quartet released the album “Ella: Accentuate the Positive” in order to commemorate the centennial of Fitzgerald’s birth and the spirit of Carter’s inspiration. Carter describes Fitzgerald as one of the few artists she finds “consistently captivating” and says, “whenever I hear an Ella recording it grabs me at my core. I’m entranced by her voice, her melodic improvisations and the passion and artfulness with which Ella sings a song.”
The two tunes from the album, “Accentuate the Positive” and “I’ll Never Be Free,” showed off Carter’s incredible range as a violinist. Trained as a classical violinist, she has stunning technical virtuosity mixed with a warm, singing tone. Her vibrato is tastefully applied as one of the myriad of effects Carter has to add color and depth to her playing. No one in her ensemble is shy of technical virtuosity, and the pianist Xavier Davis was also unafraid to get pyrotechnical in his solos as well. Despite going to extremes of color and virtuosity, there was never a feeling of being out of control; each instrumentalist’s solos were expressive with clear narrative arcs to them. There was never a feeling of “technique for the sake of technique;” every technical nuance was applied to the ends of a musical purpose with extreme conviction and strength.
Another highlight from the program was a classical-jazz mix as the quartet performed Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion.” Beginning with a sensitive and mysterious opening by pianist Xavier Dolan dreamily drawn with many colorful arpeggios, the familiar Piazzolla tune, entering with Carter on violin, seemed to emerge spontaneously as though out of a dream. Here Carter showcased her ability to build intensity well as she gripped you on the edge of your seat with the passion of her playing.
It was this passion and musical conviction that were the definitive features of Carter’s performance. It was clear that all members of Carter’s quartet were truly phenomenal musicians with a myriad of techniques at their disposal, but everything was so passionately wrought that it did not feel like a pyrotechnical showcase but rather a sharing of deeply personal and individual artistry. Even in the most intense moments, the playing never lost its intimate feel, and this was especially exemplified by the ending, in which Carter and Garnett sang while Garnett drummed with only one drum stick. The effect was magical.