A FREE STEP
the music of John Carter
On October 1, 1989, I was sitting in an airplane headed toward Los Angeles. The Dutch Ministry of Culture had given me a grant to study for two months with John Carter. ?
Beginning in the late 1970s, I heard John Carter play in Holland in various settings. Every time, I was very impressed by his fantastic clarinet playing, and by his beautiful, singular compositions, with their own personal take on African music, contemporary chamber music, jazz, and above all the country blues of his native Texas.
We got to know each other, and hung out and talked a lot, and I asked if I could study with him. I had started off as a saxophone player, and took up clarinet later. The more I played clarinet, the more I felt it was a dead end for me, because I played it like a tenor saxophone. I was missing the clarinet's own idiosyncrasies. After hearing and speaking with John Carter, I thought if anyone could teach me something useful about the clarinet, it would be him.
His teaching method appealed to me: he would listen to me describe my problems, then play me some helpful exercises, and I would watch and listen, and copy them down as a memory aid. Sometimes we would play together. He never taught from a book. To me, that's an approach that suits jazz and improvised music. He understood what I was working on and working toward.
John Carter had long experience as a teacher, and with some like-minded musicians had started a school, the Wind College, where they had workshops, and where people like me could study. My two months in Culver City remain an important period I often think back on. As I spent time studying with him, I began to see him more and more as a person and not just as a fabulous clarinet player.
After studying all day, I often went to his house in the evening, to eat and watch TV with the Carters. John often drifted off to sleep in front of the tube; I had to wake him up to drive me back to the hotel. It was part of the game--a kind of end-of-the-evening ritual. The memory of those nights is very strong. I got to know his wife Gloria, and his children and grandchildren who had free run of the house. We took some nice Sunday trips to the ocean, or up into the hills to look at LA by night. He also took me along to rehearsals, concerts, radio broadcasts, music shops and Aikido lessons, everywhere introducing me to his friends and colleagues. All that in addition to my lessons, and improvising together, and talking endlessly about music.
Those two months gave me a much fuller, rounder portrait of John Carter. Now, I remember him as a very special, warm and open person, very fond of his family and his world, who treated both with love and respect. I hear that same attitude coming out in his music. I think the five-part suite "Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music" is the best example of how his music and his life intertwined.
Ab Baars: A Free Step
"Roots and Folklore" is where Carter (1929-1991) blossomed beyond original clarinetist and post-Ornette freebopper, into a post-Ellington composer with few peers. With beautiful octet voicings (worked out, you can bet, in conjunction with the musicians), sublime bluesiness and roughhewn thrills, the series is as dyed-blue-in-the-wool American as Duke or Ives, and like neither. Carter's musical re-imaginings of the long middle passage of a people from African to American came to encompass most anything, stylistically: Copland's open telescoping harmonies, fellow Texas native Ornette's orchestral conception, children's song, the jet and the jalopy.
Yet the music always has a clear sense of purpose; all those independent vectors point toward some specific lucid effect. You can hear Carter's ensemble voice as an extension of his clarinet: the same woody timbres, mesospheric high notes, rough but somehow delicately transparent textures.
To write or play like that, one has to be a good observer--if only to transform personal or historical sources radically and still get their flavor. Close observation is a cornerstone of a certain Americanliterary-intellectual tradition: the tradition of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia or The Kinsey Report. In a real way, diligence as an observer and record-keeper made Carter the singular clarinetist he is. He extended the horn's upper limits by studying his own mistakes. Practicing, if he mis-fingered a note and squeaked instead, he'd stop to identify the pitch and jot down the fortuitous fingering. Eventually, he added almost an octave to clarinet's traditional range.
A few weeks before Ab Baars went to study with Carter in 1989, I'd been looking for him myself, to do an interview. One afternoon I picked up my ringing phone and heard the sound of a clarinet--or rather, the unmistakable sound of John Carter. Tiny phone mouthpiece in Los Angeles, tiny earpiece in New York, no problem identifying him. It was mostly a matter of his confident soaring in that false upper register: the squeals other clarinetists detest, made poetry.
But his technical breakthroughs, like his mature writing, were always at the service of a personal voice. He was a classic American individualist. The Carter sound is that of the pioneer swinging his axe in the wilderness, and keeping a journal on his breaks.
Could a Dutch trio do justice to music so thoroughly soaked in African-American folkways? Yeah.
One day in Carter's studio, Baars got a call from Amsterdam: he'd won the national jazz prize. John Carter came over to play on the ceremonial concert before the end of the year. The last time Ab saw him, John was waving as he went through customs at Schipol the next day. John Carter died in 1991. Baars's 1992 trio CD was called "3900 Carol Court"--Carter's street address--and on that disc and elsewhere you could hear Baars folding what he'd learned from Carter into his own personal style. He too had evolved (on tenor and clarinet) an instantly recognizable, forceful but vulnerable voice. Like Carter, he's always conscious the clarinet is wood, and of the power of going with or against the grain: of deriving a conception of sound from what the instrument wants to do, while resisting easy under-the-fingers licks.
In the fall of 1996, Ab went back to Culver City, to begin work on this Carter project. He had some nice reunions with the family. Gloria Carter let him photocopy an enormous sheaf of John's papers. The only admonition she gave him was, Do what you will with it, because that would be John's wish.
This cache amounted to a working man's daybook: scores, parts, reworked old pieces, fragments of pieces, sketches for future pieces with notes on how they might be developed, and still more new clarinet fingerings.
"Reading through this material gets you inside his head," Baars had said a couple of months later. "You can see how his music developed. The early pieces from the '60s read and sound like jazz 'head arrangements,' music that develops on the bandstand. The last pieces are very open, much more sketch-like, not so rigidly structured. In a way that makes the logic of his lines more clear. His music isn't bebop oriented--he rarely wrote out chord changes--but always very blues-like, even pieces which seem closer to chamber music than jazz or improvised music.
"His pieces are not typical writing for clarinet, but they're based on his own technique: little chromatic sequences, very high registers, overtones. I can also see the relationship between some of the pieces and exercises he gave me to play when I was his student."
Baars always had his working trio in mind for this stuff--like Carter, he develops his idiosyncratic music with the people who'll play it. He and Wilbert de Joode and Martin van Duynhoven, using considerable ingenuity at times, worked up 13 or 14 recorded and unrecorded Carter pieces older and newer, and field-tested them on as many concerts. (There were also a couple of sidebar gigs, Carter for quintet and octet.) To properly learn and reconstruct the pieces, Baars went back to what inspired them. He peppered Yankee friends in Amsterdam with arcane questions about American street games, slang and nursery rhymes.
On clarinet Ab can get as close to Carter's big piping sound and precise falsetto as anyone--the conscientious pupil had kept his own daybook, remember--but the sound of Carter the mature composer is so bound up with multiple lines clustered in the upper register, a trio seems understaffed for proper tribute.
Still, de Joode and van Duynhoven have been Ab's full partners since mid-1989--since shortly after Ab saw a Carter/Fred Hopkins/Andrew Cyrille trio--and he could count on them to be resourceful: Wilbert a bass player who could pop notes like a '20s gaspipe clarinetist; Martin a drummer so precise, and so conscientious about tuning, they could factor in specific pitches from trapset as well (he can 'play the melody'). By now they knew the ropes of dramatic small-group orchestration. Each could make a few notes carry a lot of weight.
Sometimes clarinet and double-stopped arco bass meld in close dissonant chords that suggest Carter's; the wooden instruments' differing overtones further rough the waves. Some pieces are remade from scratch. "Shuckin' Corn" on Carter's classic "Fields" (Gramavision) is for trio of flute, bass, and keyboard playing what sounds like sampled violin. On Baars's melody statement those parts go to tenor sax, drums and bass respectively.
Often enough, stripping the compositions down brings the main line into sharper focus, uncovering the composer's melodic logic. This streamlined Carter is like a glimpse at his workman's notes, like hearing his musical mind at work. In one case Baars effectively unearths a new piece from an old one. The Carter octet's "Enter from the East" is a welter of quasi-West African percussion. Ab extracts a stark slow line for tenor sax, framed by softly malleted drums and softly bowed bass. Rehearsing it Baars called for a "camel tempo," quasi-North African.
Back in January '97, when he was readying these pieces for performance, he said, "I want this project to be a bit like how the ICP plays Monk: as living art not museum art." He had joined Misha Mengelberg's Instant Composers Pool Orchestra in time for that '80s repertory project, where pieces were similarly recast, reborn.
Jazz musicians sometimes bemoan the lack of a shared modern repertoire. They could do worse than dip into Carter's book. Some already do so. Ab walked into the Bimhuis one night, just as James Newton and Andrew Cyrille began playing "Enter from the East." That was a nice greeting. Other Carter colleagues like Bobby Bradford, Marty Ehrlich and Mark Dresser also keep his memory alive. LA's Vinny Golia and Vancouver's Francois Houle had presented a Carter program at the Vancouver jazz festival in 1992. In the fall of '97, when Baars's project was already well underway, Houle assembled a quintet to play Carter for "In the Vernacular" (Songlines), which oddly enough includes five of the same pieces as this CD.
These correspondences as encouraging signs that more and more folks have the sense to check Carter's compositions when seeking new standards--tunes broad enough in conception and frame of reference to put improvisers through more stimulating paces than the same old hula hoops. No mystery why folks'd want to play "Sticks and Stones," say. Observe.
author of "New Dutch Swing" (New York: Billboard Books).