Jazz fans may know saxophonist James Carter as the brash upstart Wynton Marsalis unceremoniously fired a few years back for stealing his spotlight onstage. With almost always over-the-top solos and an ultra-natty sartorial style, the 31-year-old Detroit native has drawn plenty of allies (and critics) since the early '90s. Whether Carter's attitude stems from the arrogance of precocity or mere irrepressible exuberance, it's been clear that the virtuosic, volcanic improviser's chops have far exceeded his vision — until now.
Released concurrently with the fine Django Reinhardt tribute Chasin' the Gypsy, Carter's electric-jazz debut, Layin' in the Cut, marks the first recording on which he sounds like he's truly part of a band. Unlike a few of his past albums, the new CD doesn't have the compilation flavor of a producer-led venture; in fact, every tune was composed solely by the horn player or in collaboration with his group, which includes guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. This teamwork approach gives the disc a coherence and character lacking in Carter's prior efforts.
The band grooves hard on Cut with chill backbeats and extraordinarily free-feeling solos. There's intent behind every note, from the saxist's circular-breathing nod to mentor Roscoe Mitchell on “Terminal B” to the hypnotically intermeshed six-strings on “Motown Mash” and the title cut. It all seems like a move in a mature new direction for Carter — as both bandleader and bandmate. Maybe the Motor City hotshot just needed the right stage pals with whom to share the spot.