REGINA CARTER:
VIOLIN AND ďSOUTHERN COMFORT,Ē INTOXICATING MUSICAL COCKTAIL



Photo by David Katzenstein

By Paul Freeman [June 2015 Interview]

Regina Carter is an extraordinary musician. Time Magazine said of the jazz violinist, ďWonderfully listenable, probingly intelligent and, at times, breathtakingly daring.Ē

But this adventurous artist also remains a student of music. Her appetite for expanding her musical knowledge is insatiable.

In recent years, Carter has been consumed with a need to explore her musical roots. Her 2006 album, ďIíll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey,Ē delved into the early jazz standards her mother loved.

After receiving the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, she felt an urge to find out as much as she could about her ancestry.

2010ís ďReverse ThreadĒ brought listeners African music through the prism of Carterís imaginative interpretations. Her latest album, ďSouthern Comfort,Ē examines the folk tunes her grandfather, a coal miner, might have heard during his laboring days in Alabama.

To research the projects, Carter drew upon distant relatives, books and Library of Congress music collections.

Carter, who has taught at many schools, has been an artist-in-residence at Oakland University, where she studied, after attending the Center for Creative Studies and the New England Conservatory of Music.

Musical education began early for the precocious Carter. Displaying an amazing ear for melody, she began piano lessons at age two. By four, attuned to the Suzuki Method, she started violin studies. She eventually took master classes from Itzhak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin. While at University, her focus shifted from classical to jazz, drawn by the freedom. Her natural gift for improvisation blossomed.

Carter accompanied such diverse artists as Aretha Franklin, Wynton Marsalis, Mary J. Blige, Billy Joel, and Dolly Parton. She has been recording her own albums since 1995. Carter has always relished musical diversity.

In her creative travels, open to new possibilities, Carter expects the unexpected. And she spreads joy, inspiration and knowledge, wherever she goes.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
The whole exploration that you made with southern comfort, what prompted embarking on that journey?

REGINA CARTER:
Iíve always been curious about my family, my ancestors, from where I come. So after receiving the MacArthur award, I had been kind of playing around on ancestry.com and started to research on my family and did the DNA test and decided that it would be interesting to record some of the music that related to my findings and work that out as a project, because some of the music, the field recordings I was finding were so powerful and beautifulÖ and were not something that we were going to hear on commercial radio stationsÖ or any radio stations, for that matter.

So I started with ďReverse Thread,Ē in collecting a lot of music, mostly from West Africa, researching and listening to different artists. Iíd listen to one artist and all of a sudden be drawn to another artist. I was educating myself to so many other musicians and styles of music and culture that I wasnít aware of. I was really excited by the music I was hearing. So it all kind of started with ďReverse Thread.Ē

And then with ďSouthern Comfort,Ē it was probably a bit more personal, because I was researching my immediate family, my grandfather on my fatherís side, and hooking up my family tree with other relativesí family trees. And discovering other relatives that I didnít know and reconnecting with some that I hadnít been in touch with in a long time. So that project and the music that went along with those findings was even more personal than with ďReverse Thread.Ē

PCC:
Besides the personal benefits, the understanding of yourself and your heritage, what does that mean to your art?

CARTER:
It just kind of helps me understand or at least see myself in a different light of why maybe I play violin or why Iím drawn to music, seeing other relatives from the past that were musicians, musicians and educators. And knowing that I have it so much easier than they did and that they paved the way for me to have what I have. And I canít just sit back. I have to move forward with their vision and introduce audiences to music and cultures that maybe they wouldnít necessarily have access to or even know that itís available. So itís entertainment at the same time that itís education.

And with this record, I always present some of the original field recordings for the audience, so that they have an idea of where these arrangements come from and to see their growth and to see what weíve done with them, to turn them on to these collections - the Alan Lomax collection and the John Work III collection.

And also to get people thinking about their own families, backgrounds and ancestry. A lot of people come up to me after shows and say, ďYou know, I totally remember spending my childhood with my grandparentsĒ or ďIíve done some research too and found out that my grandfather was also a coal miner.Ē So I think it gets people excited, as well, to want to discover their past, their grandparents and before that and to see how far back they can go. And to hear the music that might have been relevant for them, as well.

PCC:
Immersing yourself in this project, what sort of lasting impact do you think itís had on you, musically?

CARTER:
I think just the whole process has grounded me, in a way. With each project that Iíve recorded, itís basically been choosing music or having an idea based on music that I like or that Iím drawn to. But the projects now have become more personal. And what I present is wanting to continue to find out more about myself and wanting to leave some kind of lasting legacy. And to present something thatís educational, as well, that others can not only be inspired by musically and entertained by, but also can learn from, as well. Thereís a huge educational aspect for me in the music, as well.

PCC:
Your own musical education, starting so early, taking piano lessons at age two, do you feel you were born with this gift and then worked to enhance it?

CARTER:
Yes, because of the fact that, when I was two, I walked over to the piano and just by ear started playing one of my brotherís pieces. So when that teacher, my brotherís piano teacher, tested me, she found that I had a gift to be able to repeat what I heard, almost immediately, when it came to music. So I think I was definitely born with that gift. And then my mother exposed me to different cultures of music. I had private lessons at a very early age. She took us to the symphony. Of course, I was exposed to the music that my older brothers were listening to in the house. I had master classes, private lessons, orchestra.

And my grandmother, my motherís mom, graduated from Morris Brown College in 1915 with a degree in piano pedagogy. She lived for a long time, so I was hearing her play music and sometimes we played music together. So I feel like definitely I was born with that gift and was fortunate enough to have a family that saw the importance of that gift and nurtured that gift.

PCC:
What prompted the switch to violin from piano?

CARTER:
Well, at two, I was too young to have formal lessons. And instead of going in and having my lessons prepared, I would always want to show the teacher a piece that I had composed. And that teacher didnít want to destroy that creativity by trying to force me to read. So she told my mother to allow me to just keep creating at home. And then when I was four, the Suzuki Method was offered for the first time in Detroit. And this piano teacher thought this would be great for me, since I already had a gift for hearing and repeating and thatís how the Suzuki Method is taught. In the beginning, you learn to play by ear. So she thought it would be great for me.

And it was. Not only because of that aspect, but the woman who was teaching it also she did a lot of ear training and we did some improvisational games, not with jazz, but with baroque music. And sometimes just games. She would just start to make up a melody and when she tapped you on the shoulder, you would pick up where she left off and keep creating, like telephone tag. So it was the perfect environment for me.

PCC:
Did you realize early on that violin was going to be an important form of self-expression?

Photo by David Katzenstein

CARTER:
I just knew that I really loved it. Thatís all I knew. I loved playing. I loved being on stage. So maybe I didnít realize it in the sense that I do now, as an adult, but it was just something that I loved to do and it occupied a great deal of my lifeÖ at a young age.

PCC:
The classical background, was that important as a foundation, even though you moved on to other areas of music?

CARTER:
I think it was a great foundation. I donít think itís the only way to go. Itís just the way I started. It doesnít really matter, which language you choose to learn your instrument, as long as the foundation of playing the instrument is there. And that just happened to be what was available for me. And when you think of violin, most people think of European classical music. Thatís the first thing they think of. They donít think of country-western or Irish. Usually itís European classical. So thatís the training I had. And I loved it. I played in youth orchestras for many, many years. I was involved in music in public schools, when I was growing up and often went to the symphony. We got either free or very discounted tickets, so we would go at least two or three times a month.

PCC:
It wasnít until university that jazz became more of a focus?

CARTER:
Yeah. In high school, I became aware of jazz. I was introduced to the music, by way of three violinists. So I think it was really the fact of hearing my instrument playing this other music, and having the freedom to improvise, is what really drew me to the music. I donít know that it would have had the same effect, had it been another instrument.

PCC:
Did improvisation come naturally to you?

CARTER:
It came naturally. And I really think it was because of the first teacher I had, the Suzuki teacher who would play these improvisational games with us at a young age. And being a Suzuki baby, I was comfortable being off the page. In fact, I was more comfortable off the page than on the page. And ear training was so important during those lessons. So all of that really helped with learning this new language.

PCC:
So was it also coming out of that background that made you not feel so bound by categories, musical genres?

CARTER:
Well, I think growing up in Detroit, our radio stations, when we were growing up, we didnít know these categories on our jazz station even. It was such a wide variety of genres, under the jazz umbrella, if you will, that youíd hear. And most of the jazz musicians on the scene were the session players for Motown, when Motown was still in Detroit. So there was no thing of, ďOh, youíre a pop playerĒ or ďYouíre a jazz player.Ē They were just all musicians and they played all those different kinds of music. So we grew up hearing all this different music. It was just music. There were no categories.

So, for me, when I moved to New York and people would say, ďOh, be careful, because if you try and play all these different styles of music or play in all these different bands, they wonít take you seriously,Ē I didnít even hold onto that, because I didnít come up like that. It was just all music and, if I enjoy playing something, then I want to know about it and learn about it and experience it and then hopefully share that in some way with the listener. So I think most of that just came from growing up in Detroit.

PCC:
Developing your own voice on violin, was that something you consciously worked towards? Or did it evolve on its own?

CARTER:
I think it just comes on its own. I donít know that you can consciouslyÖ maybe you can. I just think itís like developing your own speaking voice. Itís a culmination of what we heard growing up, what weíve been exposed to. Yeah, it wasnít something I worked towards. Really my goal was just trying to learn the vocabulary and learn about the music. And I think oneís voice really just comes naturally. I donít think you can force that.

PCC:
How helpful was it to have so many diverse collaborations along the way, in terms of expanding the palette?

CARTER:
I think everything adds. Itís all crucial. All of the true exchanges have been crucial for me. And I think they helped develop whatever my voice is. Theyíve helped influence it, thatís for sure. And Iím just very curious. I wouldnít put parameters on myself and not be exposed to something, miss out on something, by boxing myself in. By nature Iíve always been very curious and itís helped to create my sound, if you will, whatever that is.

PCC:
Accompanying other artists, does that carry its own sort of satisfaction, even though it may have more defined parameters than working on your own projects?

CARTER:
Oh, yes, definitely. I mean, I love working with other people. Thatís a new experience for me. Its great being a sideman, too. Itís just a different pair of shoes, if you will. Youíre in a different situation. Sone type of pressure is off. And I gain so much through the experience. Itís like being in someone elseís classroom, learning from them, seeing how they operate, how they approach the music, stylistically, what theyíre looking for. And even what theyíre specifically looking for from me. Even though it may seem like it puts more limits on me. But thatís helpful, because I learn what it they specifically want. And I get something from that experience and can take whatever I need or want from that back to my own projects.

PCC:
Have you always thought about the possibilities for expanding how people perceive the violin?

CARTER:
I think just by recording and presenting the music that I do, people see the possibilities of the instrument. The more people are exposed to anyone playing this music, in the different genres that exist, then the possibilities open up.

PCC:
You had an opportunity to play Paganiniís violin?

CARTER:
Yes, Il Cannone, a couple of records back. And I recorded with that violin, as well.

PCC:
What was that feeling like? Was it magical?

CARTER:
Yeah, it was magical. It was definitely a high point in my life and in my career. I was the first jazz musician to play the instrument. And I think that was pretty pivotal, as well, because that audience, when I performed in Italy, in Genoa, they were always used to someone playing European classical music. I think that every year thereís a competition and whoever wins that Paganini competition, they play one of his pieces and they might record a CD. So thatís how theyíre used to hearing the instrument. So now they were hearing it speak another language, if you will.

And it was difficult for some of the audience members, beforehand, to accept that someone was going to be playing non-classical music on this instrument. And it was interesting to see what some people thought of the music or these preconceived ideas that they had, but once they heard the concert, and heard the music, and they were open enough, which I was happy about, that they were even open enough to come and hear what I was doing, they had a change of heart about the music. And so that was pretty important. It was pretty important growth for them and just to see that thereís no lesser music, just like thereís no lesser culture.

PCC:
Do you grow attached to your own violins?

CARTER:
Yeah. I have two violins. But one violin is my main violin. And I love it. It has a dark, warm, soft voice. And Iíve had it for quite some time now. I think I bought this back in the 90s here in New York. And itís not a pedigree violin, but I really love the sound of it. And until I hear something else that knocks my socks off, this will be it.

PCC:
Teaching, is that another important part of your life?

CARTER:
It is, because I had so many mentors and great teachers, when I was growing up. And one I just lost recently, a great trumpeter, Marcus Belgrave [played with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Cocker and Motown artists], who for years and years and years and years and years taught so many young people, not only in Detroit, but all over, wherever heíd go. So I always saw the importance of someone taking the time to share information with me. And my mother was an educator and so was my grandmother. So it was kind of a given. And I think itís our duty to teach. And teaching doesnít necessarily mean being in a classroom. We have teachable moments in our lives every day and I think itís important for us to acknowledge and pass on information whenever we can.

PCC:
As far as what you would like to pass on, beyond techniques, what are the most important things youíd like to convey?

CARTER:
Joy. The joy thatís in this music. And the respect that we have to show one another, and to show the music. And the respect for the stage. And really the joy that exists in the music and how we can spread joy to others. And I think thatís the most important thing. Thereís so much negativity and darkness and bad news around us and this is the one place and the one thing that we can do, where we can spread joy. We can uplift someone elseís life. And that, I think, is the most basic and important thing.

PCC:
And thatís something youíd like to bring to the listeners, as well as to aspiring musicians?

CARTER:
Yes. I want to spread joy. I want them to forget about maybe the stressful day that theyíve had. And music is entertainment, but also people can be moved by music. They can be healed by music. They can be educated by the music - all these things. I think itís a very powerful gift. So I just want others to know that this is a viable job, as well. Sometimes we get people that forget that you can make a living, being a musician. You might not be a millionaire [laughs], but youíll be happy and by playing music, youíll make other people happy. And you can make a decent living.

PCC:
So making a connection with the listener, is that the big reward for you?

CARTER:
You always hope you can connect with your audience. So thatís what my goal is, to make that connection. Making a living can be a challenge, but because Iím doing what I love, I donít dwell on that.

PCC:
After all the years of playing, does the violin still hold infinite possibilities for you?

CARTER:
Oh, yeah, definitely. And I usually find new things not by looking for them. It just happens, whether itís by a mistake or just when Iím playing a response to something that Iíve heard or in the moment. But it generally comes from something happening, a sound or seeing that I can use this instrument to express myself in a genre or in a way that I didnít think of before, where it just comes to me. Yeah, itís not something Iím generally looking for. Itís just something that comes to me. I think I just have to continue being open to possibilities and experiences and musicians and artists. And you never know where that inspiration is going to come from.

PCC:
Do you know yet where the music will take you, in terms of the next album?

CARTER:
Iím not exactly sure yet, but Iím still exploring my family roots. So I think it will be more findings, music related to my further research, dealing with my family. But you know, I tell people what the next record is going to be and nine times out of 10, it ends up being something completely different. On that journey, I find something and it leads me somewhere else along that pathÖ but itís all connected.

PCC:
And itís finding the unexpected that makes it exciting?

CARTER:
Yeah, exactly. Being curious. When I was thinking about ďReverse Threads,Ē before this new album, I had been interested in exploring and recording some Chaldean [Iraqi Christian] music. I walked into a music institute to get something along those lines and someone just handed me a CD completely unrelated to what I was going in for. And I listened to this CD of Ugandan Jews and I was like, ďOh, my gosh!Ē It was completely exciting. It really struck something within me and just kind of took me on a different path. So you just never know.

PCC:
So the possibilities really are infinite.

CARTER:
Yeah, they are. Thatís the beauty of music and art. It can take you anywhere.

For more information and tour dates, visit reginacarter.com.