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Laurie Niles Interview with Regina Carter

June 23, 2010 at 8:57 PM

Regina Carter has so much to say on the violin, sometimes she's had to reinvent the language of the instrument.

Like when she played her violin in the saxophone section of the Big Band in college.

Or when she introduced Paganini's "Cannone" violin to jazz.

Or take her recently released album, Reverse Thread, in which she has turned her attentions to the music of Africa.

Picture this rather unusual setup; Regina's on the violin. To her right is Yacouba Sissoko, playing the African harp (Kora) he made himself, a bedazzled gourd with 21 strings made of fishing line, tuned by pushing cowskin plugs up and down the long neck. On her left are virtuoso accordion player Will Holshouser, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Alvester Garnett. My daughter and I saw them live at the Grammy Theatre in Los Angeles, and the effect was stunning. 

My favorite was a tune they borrowed from Ugandan Jewish culture, called "Mwana Talitambula," which means "the child will not walk." That sounds tragic, but the meaning is really that if your child won't walk, strap him to your back and keep on. She played an original field recording of the song, then their version, which started as a whisper: bass and violin sharing quiet pizzicato. Then the accordion enters, very, very high. The music widens, the volume rises, the melody soars. Then it contracts again, slowly, ending in a whisper as it began.

Mesmerizing in live performance, and brilliant still on the recording. Such a new mix of instruments – yet they seemed old, inevitable friends.

This is the kind of thing Regina Carter, 43, makes possible. We spoke a few weeks, ago, just before her LA performance.

Laurie: I've been enjoying your album, for me it's fun to listen to something that's not classical! What made you decide to play the violin in the first place?

Regina: Actually I started when I was four. When I was two, my older brothers were taking piano lessons. My mother said that one day when they were having their lesson, I walked up and started playing one of their pieces on the piano. So their teacher tested me and said, 'She's got an ear!' So she tried teaching me piano, but I was too young. When I was four, Suzuki was being offered for the first time in Detroit, so I started. I really loved playing, and I loved the instrument. Maybe a year into playing, our teacher gave us an opportunity to check out the other stringed instruments, to see if we wanted to switch. I went back to the violin; I said, 'No, I'm sticking with this.' I just really fell in love with the instrument. And with performing!

Laurie: Were you one of those people who loved to be on stage?

Regina: Yes! (she laughs) My mother said I was a little ham!

Laurie: Who was your teacher? 

Regina: Her name was Jean Rupert, in the Detroit area. There was a whole group of us; we would do our private lessons once a week and then group lessons. A great many of us from the Suzuki class still play. A couple are in the San Francisco Symphony, one is in the Chicago Symphony, and two are with quartets. It's pretty amazing that so many of us stuck with it. 

Laurie: It's a testament to what they were doing in that program.

Regina: Yes. I really believe in the Suzuki method. I think it makes it so much fun to learn music. If you start out with a love for the music, you generally don't lose that. 

Laurie: Do you teach?

Regina: I don't teach on a regular basis, but I do some workshops and masterclasses. 

Laurie: I often think about the Suzuki method, and where it's going. I wondered what your perspective might be on the Suzuki method, especially for those musicians who don't necessarily want to go into classical music.

Regina: I think it's great. I think it's what helped me to be able to ease into the world of jazz and other genres of music, because it really stresses ear training, early on. When you're playing or learning any style of music, you have to listen. It's like any language, you have to listen to how the words are pronounced in order to speak that language. You learn to hear things that cannot be put on the written page, like how to grasp the sound and the phrasing of a certain style of music. You learn other nuances that can't be written down. 

Laurie: Did your classical training help you grow into a jazz musician, or "crossover" musician, for lack of a better word?

Regina: Classical music was just my starting point; I thought that I would be in an orchestra when I first started, so that's the music that I learned the instrument with. But I think that whatever the music is -- whether your first music is Irish fiddle music, or American fiddle, or Indian classical music -- as long as you learn the basic technique for your instrument, then learning another language or another genre is easier. All music can help you add more depth to your playing.

Laurie: Tell me about the moment when you realized there was something more out there, besides the classical music you were learning. 

Regina: When I was growing up, playing European classical music, I was listening to Motown -- I lived in Detroit. Back then, all the groups had live strings, so I'd play along, learn those string parts. But it never even dawned on me that, okay, those are strings, this is something else you can do. I didn't make a connection. 

It wasn't until my dear friend, Carla Cook, who's a great jazz vocalist, started talking about people like Eddie Jefferson and Ella (Fitzgerald). She brought in records of Noel Pointer, Jean-Luc Ponty and Stephane Grappelli. That was my first introduction to jazz -- or something different on the instrument – and I was totally blown away. I thought, 'Man, you can do this?' (she laughs) This is a whole new world! I was so incredibly excited about it – so much so that I said, 'I think this is what I want to do.' I felt like there was a freedom in that music that I didn't have with European classical music. 

That was what I thought then. Now, when I look back, it was just the way that classical music was being taught to me. There were all these restraints on the music, rules that accompanied it. I think that with younger classical players that are coming out now, they're breaking those rules. They have to; otherwise, the music was going to die along with those stodgy rules.

Music is alive, it's not meant to be placed on a shelf in a museum. If you have people playing the same concertos and pieces 50, 60, 80 years later, you've got to breathe some new life into them. 

Laurie: It's true, and it can be very paralyzing to feel like there's this whole group of people who are going to jump down my throat if I play this Bach Sonata wrong....

Regina: Exactly. What they forget is that Bach was an improviser. Come on! 

Laurie: Absolutely. All those – well, guys – were improvisers, weren't they? 

Regina: They were. Those pieces weren't written out for them, they were improvising. Someone finished them for us, but we've lost that art, even in that music, of improvising it.

Laurie: When you decided you wanted to explore this world of jazz and other kinds of music, were you able to find a mentor who was a violinist. What did you do exactly, to explore it? 

Regina: In the beginning, I just bought every record – which was a half a handful! (she laughs) – of jazz violinists. I would just study those, learn their songs and solos. And then my third year of college, I transferred to Oakland University in Michigan, and I joined the Big Band there. The Big Band teacher, who was a saxophonist, said, "Stop listening to violin players; there are too few of them in this genre. Listen to horn players and singers.' He put me in the saxophone section in the Big Band. So I just started buying records of saxophonists and singers. 

Being that close to Detroit, I started heading down to the city. I studied with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and worked with an organist Lyman Woodard. There was a jazz orchestra led by a saxophonist Donald Walden, and I'd sit in, in the different clubs. So I was being mentored, and I didn't need to be mentored by another violinist; I'm actually glad I wasn't. It's too easy to pick up their things that are violinistic, and I didn't want to do that. It's more about learning the language, and I can learn that from any instrumentalist. 

After college, though, I did track down jazz violinist John Blake, who was recording and touring with McCoy Tyner and Grover Washington and had several of his own CDs out. I got a grant from the NEA and studied with him for a year.

Laurie: So what is some of your favorite sax music?

Regina: I love Ben Webster, because I just love his sound -- he's got that big sound with that vibrato that I love. I cut my teeth learning a lot of Charlie Parker, I just tried to learn as many tunes and solos as I could from him. And Paul Gonzales as well.

And I love Ella, Ella Fitzgerald is one of my favorite vocalists – she's basically an instrumentalist! (she laughs)

Laurie: That's so interesting, it's such a different path – to be in the saxophone section!

Regina: You know, I'm really thankful for that. (The director) would say, 'Whenever they breathe, you breathe,' because of course, we play stringed instruments, we don't have to breathe! (laughs) We should, but a lot of the time we don't. So literally, I learned physically to breathe out, and when I'd run out of air, stop playing. Then there was the way they would phrase the melodies or the lines. I got so much from sitting there and having them on either side of me, hearing that sound. 

Laurie: Just thinking about the whole breathing idea, it makes so much sense. So many violinists hold their breath while they're playing.

Regina: I'm guilty of it, when I'm nervous. I hold my breath, and then I play all these run-on sentences! I remember playing once with Ray Brown, and he said, 'Quit playing all those notes, and swing!' I had to breathe. Sometimes when people hear me they say, 'I can hear you take these deep breaths...' 

So? I need to do that, and it's okay.

Laurie: What was the name of your Big Band teacher?

Regina: Marvin 'Doc' Holladay. He played in Dizzy's Big Band, and just a bunch of bands.

Laurie: It's great that he was so open-minded, too. You were probably the only violinist in the Big Band, I'm guessing. 

Regina: I was, and you know, I had gone to New England Conservatory for two years before that, and when I told them I wanted to play jazz, they kind of looked at me like I had two heads! In the classical world, at least they did. Jimmy Giuffre was one of the Big Band teachers there, and he didn't care. He said,  'Come on in.' It was like a band of misfits because there were some flute players in there -- that's another instrument that people forget is a huge part of the jazz idiom. But yes, I was really thankful, he didn't bat one lash, he said, 'Here, sit down here.'

Laurie: Tell me about Reverse Thread. First, I was curious about the name.

Regina: It's a name that can mean a lot of different things to different people, but for me...Let's say you have a loose thread on your garment, and you pull it. You think it's going to end at some point, but you realize it doesn't. It's kind of me following a thread; looking at where I am now, but tracing it back and saying, okay, where did some of this music come from? What was it influenced by? Where did the sounds and the rhythms and melodies come from?' 

It's a project I've wanted to do since I lived in Detroit, and it's taken many different turns. At first it was going to be a world music record. I was so influenced by all the different cultures that were right there, in Detroit: by hearing music that had a scale system that wasn't Western, by hearing all these stringed instruments in this music and realizing that the violin could possibly be related to some of these instruments. 

But it took me this long, because there were no radio stations to support this kind of music. Record companies would always say no. Having the MacArthur money,, I decided to just do it myself. 

So I started with the continent of Africa. There are so many cultures of music that come that one continent, I only scratched the surface. It was interesting for me to sometimes hear the music and think, that sounds like Irish music, or that sounds like it could have come from Puerto Rico. We all, on this planet, are connected. All the different cultures have mixed, and sometimes you hear something you think was influenced from one place, and it really came from someplace else. That's what was so intriguing: realizing we're all connected. That thread, when you pull on it, it's all of us. We're all connected by that one thread. 

Laurie: Did you actually go to Africa?

Regina: I did not, specifically for this project; I had gone a couple years ago, to play, and then I hung out for a while. Of course when I was there I bought a bunch of CDs. But when I decided to do this record, I didn't go back. I had friends there who sent music, and some of the musicians in the band, Mamadou Ba, who's from Senegal, and Yacouba Sissoko from Mali, gave me music to listen to. Then I went to the World Music Institute and purchased a lot of music. So I had a lot of different resources. 

Laurie: It sounds like a really massive, but really fun, project. 

Regina: At first it was daunting, where am I going to start? And then I decided to just start listening to music and see where I landed. It's something I want to continue; I think maybe for the next record it will be a little more focused, because I'm now trying to focus on the different string music that comes from the continent. I know that's even still a huge project! So maybe I'll narrow it down as I develop it. 

Laurie: You said you'd had this idea for a long time, where did it come from?

Regina: Like I said, at lot of it come from listening in Detroit, hearing all this Middle Eastern music, and Greek music. That music was always very attractive and beautiful for me -- the other scales and notes that were used, that weren't a part of the Western scale system. And hearing the way these strings, these whole string orchestras, and the way they phrased together. I'd just sometimes go in the record store and I would have no idea who I was listening to; I'd say, 'What is this I'm hearing?' Back then, that's what was so beautiful, you could go in a record store and hear something and be turned on to something you may not have ever heard unless you just walked in. 

There's so much music on this planet that we're not going to hear on the radio. One record I really love is from Youssou N'Dour. He made a movie, I Bring What I Love about this music, it's religious music, basically. A lot of people will be angry with him for doing this music, because it's music of the religion, and they felt like you're not supposed to play that, perform that and record it, but it won several Grammys. And it's just amazing when you hear the orchestra play with him. 

Laurie: How did you decide what made the cut, with so much material?

Regina: (she laughs) That's the hard part! We started playing this music live maybe two years ago. Some things we planned, and then after performing we might decide this isn't working, why isn't it working? So it would go through many changes and cuts. From its inception, even some of the instruments in the band changed. You just kind of start to see: this works, this doesn't work. Playing it live, this seems to really work with this group of musical instruments, and people seem to really respond to this – and so this is what's going to go on. 

Laurie: Was it the kind of thing where you would use a full melody, or would you just get inspiration from a fragment? How did that work?

Regina: We took the full melodies on a lot of these. With some of this music, people say it's so simple-sounding. And it is. They're beautiful, folk-like melodies that are very simple. And sometimes those are the hardest pieces to play, because as a jazz musician, you're used to improvising and using all this technique. But with this, you don't want to mess it up. It's already beautiful as it is. It's a matter of trying to keep its beauty while giving it a contemporary arrangement. So in some of them, we left parts of the melody off. And then some of it we re-harmonized; for example, we reharmonized the changes, slightly, that would go under the solo section and then come back to what was originally there. But it went through so many changes, because sometimes the changes were just too much – we're trying way too hard, here, and it's detracting from the beauty of it. 

Laurie: Did you write out charts for it, or did you guys mostly do it by ear?

Regina: A lot of the arrangements I had friends do; some of them, we all would listen to the tune, or I would write out a skeleton of what the chart was, and we'd just play it. We'd just keep playing it and say, 'What do you think here? What do you think there?' We'd keep trying stuff at rehearsal until it just finally came together. For some of these tunes, it took a year for them to finally take on a life – or for us to decide, when you have to try this hard, leave it alone. 

Laurie: I understand that you played – and recorded – on the 'Cannone' a few years back. What kind of violin do you play?

Regina: It says it's a copy of a Storioni from the late 1700's, but of course all the parts on the violin have been replaced, so who knows what it really is! It sounded good when I was looking for a violin and it fit my pocketbook!

Laurie: It's not easy to find on that fits the pocketbook! So  you don't use an electric violin or anything like that?

Regina: No. I used to, I started off with one, when I first started playing, and then I just wanted to concentrate on playing the music and trying to get as many sounds out of the instrument, without having that. Which has been a lot of fun because I had to really explore the instrument itself. Plus I just didn't want to carry all that stuff around! You can really get into it!

Regina and Laurie

When my daughter, Natalie, gets inspired, she draws. Here's the drawing she made of Regina's band, as they played at the Grammy Theatre May 29.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 25, 2010 at 7:24 PM

I had the pleasure of hearing Regina Carter and her band several months ago.  I planned to blog it but never got around to it, so I really appreciate your interview, Laurie. 

All of the group's music was very enjoyable, and a lot of it had interesting cultural roots.  Thanks for explaining the gourd-based instrument.  I couldn't see it very well, and I wondered how it was constructed.  My favorite song was the same as yours, Laurie, the one with the mother singing to her baby.  At the performance Regina played a field recording of the song before the band played it.  The band's arrangement was not a literal transcription, although it started with a statement of the song's main theme.  From there the band took off into their own style of music, which was faithful to the original song in spirit.  Another song that fascinated me was from  Ugandan Jews.  I had no idea that there were Jews in Uganda, the Diaspora notwithstanding.  I looked it up on Wikipedia and found that  a Muganda military leader adopted a religion that was a combination of the three Abrahamic religions:  Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  He later focused on Judaism, and his followers became Ugandan Jews.  Regina Carter often gave brief verbal descriptions of the pieces of music and how they were created before her group played them.  Each of the musicians was superb and drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.  Regina Carter played the violin beautifully.  She rarely showed off her brilliant technical ability.  She did so to enhance the sound of the group, not to show off, as in a cadenza.  I'm very glad that you published your interview with her because her music is so good that it deserves a larger audience.

P.S.  I like your daughter's drawing.

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