Regina Carter with her group Reverse Thread will be performing at this year’s New Mexico Jazz Festival on July 19th at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. We had a delightful short, but memorable, phone conversation with her.
Regina Carter has played with some of the biggest names in Jazz and been taught by legendary classical violinists. She has even played Paganini’s legendary Guarneri violin, The Cannon in Genoa. Her repertoire ranges from jazz standards to groundbreaking new work. This highly talented musician was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”. Through it all, when talking to her, what resonates most strongly is her pure joy in playing and her sincere gratitude for her special gift.
Early on, Carter showed a great talent for music which her parents supported. She says, “When I first started playing I was four.” At an even younger age she had lessons on the piano. She quickly took to the violin. By the time she was a teenager she was playing with the Detroit Symphony and was receiving master class instruction from Itzak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin.
Her transition from classical to jazz violin began when vocalist Carla Cook, then her classmate at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, brought her some recordings from violinists like Neil Pointer, Stephan Grapelli and Jean-Luc Ponti. “I was completely floored – I had to check this out”. Once when Yehudi Menuhin was teaching her, her teacher lamented that Regina was going to throw her life away on jazz. In response, “he picked up his violin, played a blues lick and told my teacher to leave me alone,” says Carter with a chuckle.
The journey that evolved into Reverse Thread is pure Carter. She was handed an album of Ugandan Jewish music by someone at the World Music Institute where she went to get some ideas. “The woman who handed me the record said, ‘Oh, have you heard any of this music from Uganda Jews?’ I said ‘I didn’t even know there were Ugandan Jews’”, she relates. This was the departure point that led to research and exploration of music from various parts of the African continent. Her acclaimed 2010 release uses a mixture of jazz instruments and the kora (an African harp) to express these folk melodies. Reverse thread refers to the ways that all of us are related, as the weaving in a garment.
Her next project on the horizon adds to the Reverse Thread tapestry. She joined Geneology.com to learn more about her family. As an outgrowth of this research, she’s exploring the history and culture of Alabama. (Her father came from a coal mining town there.) As her research deepens she’s becoming interested in Alabama’s musical legacy. Maybe the focus will widen and include more of the South. “The band always helps in this process as well, contributing songs that they find,” she said. “The music will lead us where it needs to be.” She has a lot of material from the Alabama Folklife Association. “I didn’t realize how many great musicians have come out of Alabama,” Carter says. Next she says she’ll head to the Library of Congress. She’s also been having conversations with Dr. Bill Ferris, a renowned folklorist and cultural historian. “For me, it’s not just the music. It’s the history that goes along with it,” she shared. She’s learned to let the process unfold and not force the outcome.
As if she’s not busy enough, she volunteers to sit with Hospice patients. “I think because I played music for so long (that’s all I did when I was growing up) that I started to take it for granted.” She continues, “Hospice work has changed my whole perspective on the power of music and what it can do for others as well as myself,” Now,I’m thankful every time I get to step on stage,” she says. “I realize what a gift it is to be able to play. All the other crap doesn’t matter.”
You can hear Regina Carter and Reverse Thread at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, July 19th. This concert is part of the 2012 New Mexico Jazz Festival. The festival runs from July 13th to July 29th in venues in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The full schedule can be found at the New Mexico Jazz Festival website.