Who knew? Who in the 900-plus audience for the Regina Carter Quintet at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee knew? A few found out when they joined many dozens of others after the fourth and final concert of the 10th annual Hal Leonard Jazz Series to buy Carter’s brand new CD.
What audience members heard in concert were five musicians in consort, heard them mesh and throb, play off each other and push each other, highlight and yield to each other through nine beautifully developed pieces colored from a variety of sources, from classical to samba to world music to jazz.
What they heard was the skillful Carter, oft-cited as the premier jazz violinist today, taking vigorous or lyrical charge, or playing fully within the group, or stepping aside to give her playmates well-deserved chances in the spotlights.
What they heard was Detroit native Carter slide out the story of her coming together with perhaps the most revered violin in the world, Guarneri’s Il Cannone, and how that led to her new CD, "Paganini: After a Dream," copies of which, ahem folks, being available after the show. (After building it in 1743, Guarneri gave his big-sounding instrument, now a trusteed, treasured icon of Italy, to the great baroque jammer, Nicolo Paganini.)
While they heard two hours of marvelous, unusual dynamics, what didn’t they know?
"We were just totally exhausted," quintet pianist Werner (Vana) Gierig admitted. "We got in about 4 am (the morning of the concert) from the New Orleans Jazz Festival." (Even so, they did do an afternoon lecture-demonstration at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.)
Whether it was because they were playing more on instinct or fumes or that they’ve been playing together for a whole year since they last performed in Wisconsin (in the Union Theater at UW-Madison), they sounded stronger and looser. That is, they both expressed the moods of the numbers with more verve and fullness and they let the music come together more naturally, giving it air to breath in relaxed hand-offs, pauses and breaks.
With no typical jazz wind instruments, the quintet gave distinctive voicings to most of their pieces, at times literally breathing special life into them with vocalizing more derived from modern world music than jazz riffs.
Their "Mandingo Street" started with the tentative sounds of rain forest morning and played out the rhythms of a tropical day, spiced by the percussive and vocal mixings of Cuban native Mayra Casales. In "Black Orpheus" Carter moved from little, scratchy, and sad to shining right onto swinging, augmented by Gierig’s superb solos and moodified by Casales’ aural apothecaries.
Perhaps the least known piece but one of the best of show came in on cat’s feet and turned into a spiffy romp. Pianist Gierig’s spiffy Portuguese samba "Wise Little Cat" caught the ear like a very familiar tune, from his engaging new CD, ''A New Day''.
In nods to Carter’s new CD, and her classical upbringing, and her star role in the group, the quintet led off with Astor Piazzolla’s tango "Oblivion," and later also delivered Maurice Ravel’s "Pavonne" and Claude Debussy’s "Reverie," reverentially. Perhaps a little too reverentially, or as one young musician put it, a "little too much like her mother wanted her to play." This nice stuff, once called Third Stream Music, comes straight off the "Paganini" CD that features all of these musicians.
They also include deft drummer Alvester Garnett adding just the right grit and sparkle and boffo bassist Chris Lightfoot mixing in strong lines and chording, plucking and bowing.
Reaching into the bop bag, Carter pulled out "Prelude" by nearly forgotten Lucky Thompson and strung in samplings of 40’s tunes. They also did Milt Jackson’s Afro-Cuban "For Someone I Love" featuring Cuban-expat Casales’s conga concoctions and a truly-called-for encore of a Stephane Grappelli styled "Chattanooga Choo Choo."