“A Pleasure to be Saturated”: James Carter Organ Trio Headlines at the Jazz Standard

Last week at the Jazz Standard featured the James Carter Organ Trio with Gerald Gibbs on Hammond B-3 organ and keyboards, Leonard King, Jr., on drums, and Carter on saxophones and flute. I spent Friday evening with them for a charged set that the audience received enthusiastically. Carter announced his setlist immediately after greeting the audience and then led his trio on a 75-minute, uninterrupted romp through five hard-swinging tunes. The band’s performance throughout the set centered on unwavering groove complemented by highly sensitive communication, inventive and exciting improvisations, and endless waves of energy and passion. Each member equally adopted roles as featured soloist, accompanist, and time-keeper, which made for a dynamic listening experience.

Opening with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’s standard, “Sheila,” Carter quickly settled into his role as preacher to the audience, shouting out and professing on his tenor sax. He reminded us that there’s no out-of-bounds with his sax playing, coaxing every imaginable sonic effect and timbre out of his horn. Varying high-energy growling, straight-eighth double-tonguing, and the most intricate chromatic bebop lines, Carter commands the stage and the audience’s rapt attention through his endless imagination and overflowing love for making great music. Steeped in tradition but filtered through a highly unique skill set, Carter morphs the standard phrases and grooves we might expect from a straight-ahead organ trio, toying with the audience’s expectations while playfully tweaking those phrases with sounds and substitutions that none of us could have anticipated. As an accompanist, he lingered on the edge of the bandstand, mixing up background riffs reminiscent of Basie Orchestra sax section fills with polyphonic chord-comping behind both Gibbs and King. At the end of Gibbs’s solo, the audience witnessed something between a soulful testifyin’–in-church and an impudently proud “look, ma, no hands!,” as the organist joyfully raised his hands above his head and let loose a few thrilling bars of chromatic bebop lines on the organ pedals.

On “Killer Joe” the trio established a firm and steady jazz-funk and New Orleans street-beat groove at the onset and then launched into a harmonically adventurous reworking of the standard. Carter (on alto sax) once again let loose a wide range of ideas and effects on his solo: one repeated pitch displaced and elaborated rhythmically, vocal screams and hollers, edgy and tight bebop lines, and soaring altissimo passages all interweaved. King’s improvisation was a study in subtle elaboration, in which he slowly added in slight variations to the street-beat, folding in short motives and polyrhythmic riffs. “Many Blessings” showcased the trio’s quieter side. The groove and intensity never faltered, though, as the band laid back a bit in a more reverent and straight-ahead rendition of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s composition. Carter played flute throughout, but showed the same range of instrumental affect, overblowing the instrument into its overtone range, even pulling off a few chords. King sang near the end of Buddy Johnson’s classic “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” after which Carter performed an insistent and soulful improvisation on tenor sax—bending, leaning, and slowly pushing the pitches around at will. During his solo outro, he raised the intensity level, employing a whole range of vocal effects on his tenor that moaned and cried right along with the song’s lyric. An audience member called out in excitement and Carter matched pitch in response to her shouts, starting in an impromptu interplay that closed the tune.

Over an extended gospel funk tune, Carter re-introduced the band and carried the Standard’s audience to the end of the evening with another few rounds of compelling improvisation. At the beginning of the night, Carter greeted everyone with: “As always it’s a pleasure to be saturated with your presence.” From the first notes of Friday’s set, Carter and his trio established an electric atmosphere conducive to audience participation that lent an air of excitement to the show. Carter’s trio performed at the high level of collaborative musicianship and soulful groove that has defined it for so long. But Carter and his saxophones were far and away the stars of the evening: through a diverse and dexterous palette of sound and sentiment, along with an unrelenting sense of groove, Carter enlivened the Jazz Standard with yet another virtuosic performance.

Here’s a 2007 clip of the trio playing the Freddie Hubbard composition, “For BP (Bud Powell).” Also be sure to check out their latest recording, At the Crossroads:

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