Review: James Carter at Bird’s Basement

imag0127I don’t know how venue managers inform the talent that it is time to get on stage and start performing, but when it comes to James Carter, I imagine a poor officer clearing the way to the stage shouting something along the lines of “release the Kraken”!

The Kraken, being, of course, this gigantic sonic fireball that comes out of his saxophone, the exact moment that he seems to set his foot on stage. It happened at Bird’s Basement, where a roomful of stunned patrons seemed to freeze ‘statue-challenge-like’, forks and glasses mid-air, to get a hold of the man’s energy. I was pretty sure, in fact, that James Carter did not enter the stage from the stage door on the side; I’m wrong, but I’d much rather think that he was launched from a bucking chute, like the ones they let off bulls in the rodeo. One could mistakenly take this metaphor as a veiled way to express the idea that James Carter is showing off his saxophone skills the way a bull-rider (rodeo clown?) shows his mastery of his bull-riding skills. But this is not the case. For if James Carter seems to be holding on to his saxophone, it is not because he’s trying to impress us. It’s because he can’t do otherwise. James Carter plays the sax as if his survival depends on taming this shiny, golden reed instrument that possesses this mystical, divine energy that he tries to put to good use for the 55 minutes of each set. It is obvious that the instrument chose him, that it trusted him to do so, and for a very good reason. Because James Carter loves what he’s doing. You can tell that he’s experiencing so much joy and pleasure and emotional satisfaction and engagement that it just overwhelms him, to the point that he wants to share it with the people in front of him. And when he manages to tame this beast, when the roaring sound of his tenor that seems to be bigger than Bird’s Basement (and in fact, bigger than any venue that he plays, even outdoor ones), or the human-like cry of his alto gives way to the soft singing of his soprano sax, at that time, it is clear that the sonic shapes that come out of his horn are those of pure beauty.

His 2000 tribute to Django Reinhardt is one of my favourite albums of the past 20 years, but I was surprised to see him still performing it. The night I saw him, he played ‘Nuages’  and ‘Artillerie Lourde’ and even played Babik Reinhard’s ‘Miroirs’.  It was then that I finally put my finger to it and made the connection. What draws Carter to Django’s music is not only that he enjoys it immensely (that is obvious), being able to fully explore the legendary guitarist’s intricate, almost baroque-like idea of swing to its full potential. It is that the two artists possess the same kind of raw energy, they are brilliant examples of talent too big to be groomed and contained to the enclosed space of any conventional jazz venue.

Speaking of venues, Bird’s Basement is slowly but steadily finding its pace and its place in the Melbourne Jazz ecosystem. It even has a new menu (I was told it is new). I had the Barramundi, beautifully cooked and paired with clams, capers and tomato. It was delicious, but I regreted ordering it; it just did not go well with Carter. If food and jazz pairing ever becomes a thing (and I know of a chef who’s determined to make it a thing), then this dish would be great for a night of vocal jazz delivered with modern european subtlety. But Carter’s music needs more substance, like the eyefillet that features on the menu. Better yet, next time they get him in town (and they should) they could put bull heart stew on the menu.