Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Chasin' the Gypsy


Layin' in the Cut

At 29, saxophonist James Carter is as near as jazz gets nowadays to a young turk--not some ironically avant postrock experimentalist, but a cocky scene-stealer with a sustaining audience, a mainstream reputation, and a knack for coming up with noticeable records. He's sharper than Branford Marsalis, wilder than Joshua Redman, better than Greg Osby; if his brash range, breathtaking chops, and brawling sound recall anyone, it's Sonny Rollins, or category-busting 45-year-old David Murray. And after albums devoted to boudoir come-hither, Hammond B-3, and personal jazz roots, his latest release is a double doozy: two separately sold CDs, one taking off from the Romany guitarist Django Reinhardt, the other a long overdue bid to reclaim the Ornette Coleman-derived style of fusion briefly achieved by Murray and guitarist James Blood Ulmer around 1980.

Chasin' the Gypsy is the instant fave here. Opening with an in-your-face bass saxophone rendition of Reinhardt's hugely hummable World War II hit "Nuages," Carter and a band featuring violinist Regina Carter and drummer Joey Baron swing romantically ("Manoir de Mes RÍves"), jauntily ("Oriental Shuffle"), moodily ("I'll Never Be the Same"). The title tune is a gut-busting flag-waver, the closer a literal lullaby. Carter's affection for a bygone culture is palpable throughout, and never deadened by piety.

But the freshly improvised, quickly recorded Layin' in the Cut is just as impressive. Topping a rhythm section with roots in Ulmer and Ornette and the very different twixt-jazz-and-rock guitarists Marc Ribot and Jef Lee Johnson, Carter is as at home pumping percussive funk as he is rolling out buoyant swing. His distinctly hard-edged embouchure is especially well-suited to this harmolodic style, with its determination to make jazz guitar loud and r&b horns free. Like everything Carter does, it will make guardians of jazz taste wince and lovers of its spirit rejoice.

Rolling Stone, 2000