StringOvation Exclusive: Violinist Regina Carter Goes Wherever the Music Takes Her
For an artist with such eclectic tastes in music, there's one thing violinist Regina Carter doesn't much care for, and that's labels. When Carter, 53, transitioned her formal studies from classical to jazz, it set her on a path to musical discovery that she continues to explore.
Known for her blending of styles – such as Afro-Cuban with classical, Ugandan Jewish folk with Celtic – Carter isn't interested in categorizing music.
"What's a ‘Latin' beat?"' She asked rhetorically during a recent interview with StringOvation. She explained that some musical genres have subgenres and branches that can't be defined. And that's intriguing to Carter – both a McArthur Fellow and Doris Duke Award winner – who has collaborated and performed with a diverse roster of musicians from Richard Bona to Mary J. Blige, Rhiannon Giddens, and Billy Joel.
Along her musical journey, she's become an anthropologist and music historian – minus the degrees. Carter intuitively understands that music is a culture's language, and through dedicated research, she immerses herself in the originating cultures of the music with which she works.
"It's important that you understand certain rhythms, where exactly those rhythms came from, what dance it goes with, what's the beat, etc.," Carter said. "It's interesting."
Carter, born and raised in Detroit, eventually made her way to New York City and now resides in New Jersey with her husband, drummer and former bandmate Alvester Garnett. She recently took time from her hectic schedule to discuss her career with StringOvation.
"Growing up in Detroit I was exposed to a lot of different musical styles," Carter said.
That included classical music she heard at home at a very young age while her older brothers received music lessons. Both played the piano while one learned trumpet and the other, clarinet. Regina turned out to be the only string player in the family.
"My grandmother went to Morris Brown University and graduated in 1915 with a degree in piano pedagogy, which was unusual for a woman, especially a black woman, at that time. Education was really important to my family, especially my mom, so we all took music lessons and we all had to go to college."
For the little girl in the family, lessons began sooner than expected.
"One day, when the teacher was at the house, I walked up to the piano and started playing one of the tunes my brother had been practicing. They were all shocked. The teacher asked, ‘Who taught her that?' and they said, ‘Nobody. We didn't even know she could play.' The teacher tested me and said, ‘She has an ear for music. She should take lessons.' My mom took me to lessons with Anna Love in Detroit. She had a place called Your Heritage House, where you could do art and all kinds of things."
Carter was only two-years-old at the time.
"Instead of learning the tunes in the little music book, I would go to my lessons saying ‘here's a song I wrote,'" Carter chuckles at the memory of the doodles that "looked like a dinosaur egg. Then I would play a song.”
That arrangement wouldn't last. Love felt Regina was too young to teach formally and didn't want to destroy her love of music. Two years later, when Carter was four years old, Love told Carter's mother about the Detroit Community Music School's Suzuki Method program – which teaches students to play by ear before learning to read music. It was a perfect fit. Once there, Carter gravitated to the violin.
Though steeped in classical music as she grew up and progressed, Carter also had an appetite for other sounds.
"There's all this different music from around the world right there in Detroit to hear. My brothers were listening to Motown and the Beatles. My teacher would send home each student with European classical albums, and my mom would take me to hear the symphony. I had friends from other countries. I'd visit their homes and hear their classical music, Greek or Italian classical – meaning a lot of it was orthodox church music. Because I was a Suzuki student and learned by ear, sometimes if I heard a certain musical sound, I would try to imitate it on my instrument. That's a fun thing to do without having any effects boxes – just trying to do it myself."
Jazzing it up
It was wasn't until Carter was in her early teens that she started to develop a taste for jazz.
"When I was young, one of my best friends was jazz vocalist Carla Cook. We went to the same high school and sat next to each other in Spanish class – which is why we say we only know five words between us. She would be talking about Eddie Jefferson, Sarah Vaughan, and Miles Davis – I didn't know about any of these people. She gave me three records of violin players – Jean-Luc Ponty, Noel Pointer, and Stéphane Grappelli – and I put those records on and lost my mind. It was like, what?! I didn't know violins could do that! That was my introduction to jazz.
"When I heard these violinists improvising with a rhythm section it just felt so free for me, coming out of the European classical tradition which felt so very strict. I thought OK, this is what I'm going to do – but that was against my mother's wishes. She was blue-collar, a teacher, and she told me, ‘You're going to get into a symphony and have health insurance and a pension.' When you're 14, you're like, Please! I don't need that stuff!"
Carter's classical education continued, and subsequently, her jazz exploration went on hiatus — but not because of anything her mother said.
"That Christmas, I asked my mom for jazz records. She got me Eric Duffy's Out to Lunch, Miles' Bitches Brew, and Barnett Coleman's Dancing in Your Head. When I put those records on I said ‘If this is jazz, then never mind!' I just didn't know at that time what jazz meant. When I heard those three violinists, that's what I thought all jazz was. So those Christmas records sat for a long time in my room gathering dust. Now they're some of my favorite records."
Carter didn't realize it at the time, but the seeds of musical diversity and curiosity were sown and slowly germinating.
Watch Regina Carter perform the big band jazz standard I Can't Believe from 2003.
Research, learn, grow
Carter doesn't go looking for styles to mash up. It's her hyper-sensitive ear, intuitiveness, and willingness to experiment that led her to create a portfolio that could be the soundtrack for a United Nations of jazz.
For Carter, the initial attraction to a style of music is just the first step.
"When I first moved to New York, I joined a charanga band. I was listening to a lot of Afro-Cuban and Latin music. I loved the music and learned about the culture – which is always important for me. Then you have an understanding of why certain things are the way they are. You might be in a band, and someone says to the drummer, or the pianist, ‘give me a Latin beat.' Well, what does that mean? What's a ‘Latin' beat? It doesn't mean anything! Do you want some folkloric Afro-Cuban? There's so much just in that. Do you want Puerto Rican folk?
"There's just so much to understand about how you approach something and play it. Otherwise, you don't know why you're playing it. Once, many years ago, I was playing a clave rhythm with my band. My husband said ‘You're playing it on the wrong side.' So I had to stop and understand, ‘Why doesn't this work here?' I think it's important to respect the music and the culture. If it's something I really want to play and understand, that's a must. Then you can get deep into the music, and it's fun."
There have been times when Carter was challenged, trying to learn new songs. She talked about the difficulty she had laying down the track Mandingo Street written by Cameroonian multi-instrumentalist and composer Richard Bona for her 1999 album Rhythms of The Heart.
"He sent me a recording of the tune, and I listened and listened. I had the first part, but when it came to the bridge, I couldn't figure it out. When I was in the studio with him, he said, ‘No, that's not the one,' and it turned my whole world upside down. It took hours in the studio to figure that out, and it was a huge lesson that in Western music, we count ‘one-two-three-four,' or ‘one-two-three.' But in a lot of other cultures, they aren't so rigid. You have to go there, study, and understand how everything fits together."
"I don't start by thinking I'm going to blend this music with that music. It's rather my interpretation of what I heard," Carter says. "I'm curious. I like to learn new things and hear new things and present new music – and when I say ‘new,' what's really new?"
Today's world of independent recording gives musicians the room to flex their imaginations and have more creative reach. But that latitude used to be in short supply, Carter explains.
"I think a lot of people blend music now. When record companies were all-powerful and controlling, it was more difficult. Without the labels, more musicians feel the freedom to mix styles."
How does Carter begin her process? "Sometimes just getting started can be difficult," Carter explains. "I have so many interests, I have to focus myself because I'm all over the map. If I come up with an idea, it helps me to focus and have a starting point where my research can begin."
Even when she finds that starting point, the music can end up someplace unexpected.
"Sometimes my idea for a record changes. I may start my research and along the way discover something else, or someone might hand me a recording of something, and I think, ‘ah - this is interesting!' With my album Reverse Thread, it was more on the folk side than the contemporary. That project started out as one thing, and then someone gave me a field recording of Ugandan Jews – I didn't know there were Jews in Uganda, so I did some research.
"I started listening to music from Mali and other parts of the continent. I spent probably a good year or more researching the project, seeing what would work on my instrument. I put a band together, and we played the tunes, seeing what worked and didn't work."
In the final mix, what worked was a multi-ethnic stew of traditions, including West African kora and Celtic accordion.
Watch Regina Carter in an ensemble performance of Zerapiky from her album Reverse Thread
"When I was researching music I would hear stuff and think, this sounds like an Afro-Cuban band, or this sounds very Celtic. You go to certain areas and think ‘I'm in another country.' That's why I named the record Reverse Thread, because whether we want to be or not, we're all related. We all share some DNA. It was pretty amazing to hear that. I wasn't even blending. The music was what it was. It was surprising for me because I didn't expect to hear something that was Celtic or had something like that in it."
Watch Regina Carter in an ensemble performance of Artistya from her album Reverse Thread
As someone who deeply appreciates history, Carter made some herself in 2001, when she was invited to Genoa, Italy, to perform with The Cannon, a violin crafted in 1743 by Giuseppe Guarneri and later acquired by Niccolò Paganini. The instrument's astonishing resonance inspired the name. The experience led to her 2003 album, Paganini: After a Dream, which features the Cannon.
"I was the first jazz musician to play Paganini's Guarneri," Carter said. "It was an incredible experience that I will never forget. It has a very huge and dark tone, and the instrument is much larger than mine, making it difficult to get to know it in such a short amount of time. Playing my violin immediately after playing the Cannon made my violin feel so incredibly small and easier to play. My violin is not a pedigree, but I love the dark sound it has, and it's my perfect voice for playing jazz."
Listen to Regina Carter play Oblivion from Paganini: After a Dream
Try something new
Carter's album Southern Comfort, inspired while researching her father's side of the family, invokes the Appalachian sounds that would have been familiar to her coal miner grandfather. But, she found that Southern roots music resonates outside the U.S. as well. "Influences can come from anywhere," Carter says.
When Carter played the track Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy, at Sony Masterworks, she recalled how Sony VP Chuck Mitchell commented, "'That sounds like a tune my mother used to sing to me when I was a kid.'" Another time, "When we were playing the song at a gig at Birdland, there was a busload of tourists from Finland, and a lady walked up to me and said ‘I know that song.’ So, you can't say this is music just from America. It's music coming together from all these different cultures."
Then there are the times Carter feels the need to help her audience grow, too.
"I remember years ago, playing at Sweet Basil, and a woman comes up and says ‘You know, I don't like some of the songs you just played, but I liked that one tune, Don't Explain.’ I told her that was Billie Holiday and to check her out and some other singers I suggested. Even now, someone will say to me, ‘I never heard of you before, but I took a chance.' I always thank them for taking a chance. Whether they liked it or not, at least they had a new experience. Always try something new. You might like it."
Just in time
Before "Reverse Thread," Carter was dealing with some heavy personal challenges throughout 2005 and 2006. Her mother was battling cancer as Carter was preparing to perform at an overseas festival. Told her mother didn't have much time left, Carter was not about to leave her side. But the festival's producers didn't believe her reason for canceling and threatened to sue if she didn't appear. Carter's mother passed, and a lawsuit followed. Legal bills and the potential for even worse financial impact was a near-constant burden for Carter in the year that followed.
During that time, Carter recorded I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey, a tribute to her mother celebrating big band era standards like A-Tisket, A-Tasket, and Little Brown Jug. The album featured vocals by Carter's longtime friend Carla Cook and Dee Dee Bridgewater. The same year the album was released, in 2006, and a week after using her savings to settle the lawsuit, she received a phone call.
"I thought it was a prank," Carter said.
It wasn't. It was the MacArthur Foundation informing Carter she was chosen for a six-figure grant. In an instant, her financial anxiety was lifted.
"I was in shock!" she said. "It was like my mom was looking out for me."
That allowed Carter to begin focusing on a new project, the result of which was the album "Reverse Thread."
In 2018, Carter was selected for a Doris Duke Artist Award.
"This was a miracle, too," Carter said.
Unlike the MacArthur grant, this one came with stipulations. Recipients are required to attend a workshop on money management and participate in personal growth exercises, such as writing themselves a letter and following up with a progress report to the foundation. Artists like Carter, who neglected to take downtime for themselves are encouraged to go on vacation to relax and recharge.
"It puts you in a space that will help you create and not feel guilty about going on vacation," she explained.
Given some leisure time, Carter also became a hospice volunteer.
"We don't deal enough with death," she said. "It's the one thing no one wants to talk about, and I wanted to find a way to do that. Like one of my girlfriends likes to say, ‘none of us are getting out of here alive.' I wanted to work with geriatric people. When my mom was in the hospital, I saw that some older people had no one to visit them. Maybe they didn't have any family. And that made me sad."
Accentuating the Positive
Carter's most recent release, 2017's Ella: Accentuate the Positive, is an homage to the late Ella Fitzgerald, who inspired both Carter and vocalist pal Carla Cook.
"I've been an Ella fan since I was a child," Carter said.
"Her records would take me to another place. Hearing her voice just felt like love, like a grandmother or someone you love, just the best hug, and you feel like all is well in the world. That's what Ella feels like to me – and did as a child."
With Ella's 100th birthday that year, it was a great idea to celebrate her, but Carter feared everyone would be doing an Ella album. She dug deep and found some lesser-known songs Fitzgerald performed, like Crying in the Chapel, which was a hit cover for Elvis Presley and others.
"I discovered a doo-wop recording by Ella, some country-western, all of which was right up my alley. Ella just loved music. She didn't have any problems with genres or any of that. It was a perfect fit."
"When I'm learning a new vocal tune, I listen to several vocalists and try to find one who just sings it straight. Then I go back and compare it to Ella. I need to know the words before I figure out what I can do with the melody. If I phrase it differently, it still has to make sense to someone listening who knows the song."
And that's another reason she went off the beaten path for the album. "I thought if I change the arrangements, people won't be so upset. Maybe they'll be cool with it, or maybe they won't, but they probably didn't know the songs in the first place."
Watch the promo video for Ella: Accentuate the Positive
Despite Carter's rejection of labels, she is considered among the elite of contemporary jazz violinists. With a career that has taken her around the world and provided the opportunity to mine a variety of cultures, she continues to learn and grow. Carter's personal taste in music runs the spectrum from classical to funk. Her interpretation of different musical styles keeps attracting an ever-growing audience, both in live performances and on YouTube.
With such a wide-open field of possibilities, tour dates aside, what will be the next stop on Carter's musical journey? The anticipation builds.
"I have a couple of ideas in mind," she says, "But it's too early to talk about them."
Whatever Carter comes up with, it's sure to be worth waiting for.
Sponsored by Thomastik-Infeld
Top Image of Regina Carter by Christopher Drukker.