No stranger to the four night stints at the bistro, Regina Carter has cemented an incredibly dedicated group of fans that had no intention of missing her first set. This time traveling at the helm of a standard quartet, the violinist was warmly welcomed back by the staff and fans alike.
In addition to two sets of music, it was a night of recognition for Carter. Now over a decade ago, it was this remarkable violinist that was the first artist ever booked for the Bistro by Jazz St. Louis's Executive Director, Gene Dobbs Bradford. Even more notably, however, it was here that the Jazz Journalist Association finally caught up with Carter to deliver her their annual award for "Best Violinist" after the first set. With the multiple honors bestowed upon her, the expectations were high, but Regina and her quartet were more than ready to impress.
Carter's last visit to the Bistro was at the lead of Reverse Thread, a creative arrangement that featured an accordion and an African kora and carried with it a very distinctive style, but this time she returned with a straight forward style and the quartet to match it. Coincidentally all from Michigan, the arrangement included Xavier Davis on the piano and Jesse Murphy on a traditional, stand up bass. Rather than her husband and regular drummer Alvester Garnett, Carter reunites with Gayelynn McKinney to handle the trap set for this part of the tour.
Throughout the sets, the foursome played a healthy array of classic and contemporary jazz pieces, a few of Carter's originals and even a "derangement," to use Carter's term, of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." Grounded in a straight forward approach, other influences were rampant throughout the song's progressions and solos, including a healthy dose of Dixie and western inspired riffs to highlight the violin lead. Many of the selections would progress through a number of styles during the piece, using breakdowns and call and response exchanges to handle the transitions smoothly.
Carter herself continues to impress. Known for improvisational skills, she has a bottomless repertoire of licks at her disposal, each one carrying a familiar tone and presented as smoothly as the tune's lead melody itself. While many musicians interpolate here and there during their solos, with the violinist, there was a steady stream of familiar riffs from standards like "Dixie" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo," most accompanied by a short laugh from the crowd. Playing music since a child, she carries a youthful spirit in her music and demeanor on stage, combining a childlike innocence with a veteran's wisdom. Even when not playing, Carter would connect to the music, rocking back and forth as her bandmates played, once even playing air guitar, or perhaps air ukulele, on her violin as they jammed out a groove.
Xavier Davis also demonstrated quite the prowess behind the keys. He was afforded many extended solos, sometimes even surpassing the bandleader in the amount of time he spent in the spotlight. While Carter often led the group, even when not playing, she did step aside a few times and Davis became the clear band leader, signaling the other musicians on the changes and transitions. His approach is very well matched to Carter's, approaching his solos and other improvisations with a style that made you question when the scripted melody stopped and the freestyle began.
The other members of the rhythm section certainly didn't disappoint, but spent much less time in the center of the crowd's attention. Jesse Murphy offered a number of walking bass lines throughout the sets, very much tuned into the rest of the quartet for cues on chords, key changes and timing. His solos were modest, demonstrating his fine touch on the strings more than speed and extravagant riffs, but proved himself to be a valuable member of the back line.
McKinney, on the other hand, seemed to play most of the night with her eyes closed, feeling the music around her as she played. Her set-up was fairly standard as was her style, but there was a comfort in the music not often found in drummers. Beyond that, she did still impress by making use of the floor tom regularly to change up the tone of the downbeats and to give depth to a number of her breaks.
There was no shortage of fans trying to catch Regina Carter, even on a Wednesday. It's clear that she can fill the Bistro night after night, every time she comes to town, leaving very little worry about whether or not she will return in the future. While there are surely countless cities and venues that can offer Carter a warm welcome, the jazz fans of St. Louis and the Bistro will always make sure she'll come back to impress us again.