Sunday, 14 November 2010

John Carter

It's difficult to write about such a broad minded player such as John Carter, after all he seems to have slipped through the net when it comes to 'well known' musicians, yet somehow he seems to have been a pioneer all on his own, especially when talking about the clarinet. In fact if you've already clicked on the wiki link you'll have noticed that it's a very short entry.

Born in Fort Worth, the same town as Ornette Coleman we're always reminded, John Carter although starting his career with sax and clarinet later focused on one instrument (rather than be a jack of all trades?), and that instrument being the clarinet. Although saying that, his earlier recordings with Bobby Bradford were centered on the tenor/alto saxophones, and he was no slouch on those instruments for sure! I'm certainly no specialist on John Carter and all the music he recorded and played, but it is striking to hear his earlier music and realize how far ahead he was in terms of 'concepts'. His early records with Bobby Bradford are really quite stunning. They show how these two were really soooooo far ahead of everybody else at the time, when it comes to open improvisation, with melodic structure and flexible time.

The first three albums are almost the same, and one has to wonder what the recording circumstances were, after all two of the records/sessions seem to have been recorded almost simultaneously - Flight for Four (1st January '69) and West Coast Hot (on 3rd January '69). The third in the series is recorded a few days later - Seeking (16th January '69).

Seeking - New Art Ensemble (1969)

Nowadays this album is found under various titles, but both mention John Carter and Bobby Bradford - re-released several times and most recently on HatOlogy 620. This is a good a place to start as any when thinking about discovering Carter and his music. As already mentioned the first three records are very similar and have the same personnel. This record flies off the turntable/CD player straight away with a fast Ornette type of tune called 'In the Vinyard' with John Carter on tenor!! Yes, it's also one of the reasons I like this record, our clarinet man starts out on tenor sax, and maybe, although it's to late to ask, it would have been very interesting to ask Dewey Redman about Carter and the tenor sax, their sound and styles have much in common with Dewey Redman. The second track 'Karen on Monday' also holds an interesting surprise due to it's duo quality. It starts with a lovely (and lonely) duet with alto sax and double bass - playing a bass line which resembles 'Footprints' ! The music could almost come from some late night police series or film from the seventies. Interestingly they manage to keep this very subtle tune moving without ever getting into a tempo, quite remarkable really as you interest stays all the way through. Most of the tunes are what nowadays one would 'freebop' but often with very intricate lines played very precisely. I think I read somewhere that these albums had as much inventiveness as Ornette, but due to the fact that these guys didn't re-locate to NewYork the music didn't get so well heard. Interesting enough tunes such as 'The Village Dancers' and 'Sticks and Stones' could certainly come from an Ornette album. The main difference being the precision of the unison work and the clarinet of course.

In the Vinyard - from Seeking (1969)
It's here where John Carter went in another direction with the use of clarinet, which of course doesn't really have the same initial impact as sax, and probably is less attractive to the young kid wanting to copy his idol. I remember at college not being so interested in the clarinet, after all John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cannonball Adderly all played sax - not forgetting the other more modern (sax) players that influenced me ... Branford Marsalis, Mike Osborne, Skidmore, Garbarek etc ... no clarinets here!

The album that really caught my attention with Carter was (of course) 'Castles of Ghana' a complete giant of an album, and part three of a trilogy mapping the development and history of the movement of peoples from Africa to America in the slave trade.

  Castles of Ghana - (1985)

In fact the Castles of Ghana (Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music # 2) and the other two Dauhwe, Dance of the Love Ghosts, Fields and Shadows on the Wall (Roots and Folklore Volumes #1 and #3, #4 and #5 - respectively), all use the compositional techniques that you hear on the early discs as mentioned above. He constantly writes melodies moving in and out of ensembles made up of duos, trios etc. However with an ensemble that is made up of John Carter – clarinet, vocals, Bobby Bradford – cornet, Baikida Carroll – trumpet, vocals, Benny Powell – trombone, Marty Ehrlich – bass clarinet, percussion, Terry Jenoure – violin, vocals, Richard Davis – bass, Andrew Cyrille – drums..... the palette of sounds is vast and always swinging! Examples of the music to be found here are a wonderful clarinet duo with Marty Ehrlich on Conversations, a wonderful fanfare like piece (opens the album) which is built around a drum ostinato. Interestingly John Carter uses his clarinet here in a very interesting way, creating bird like sounds - difficult to explain - throughout this piece 'Castles of Ghana' leaving other players to take solos. The drums often take a important role here, but often in an interestingly percussive way and much of the music has a dark brooding quality about it, which is not surprising when considering the context of the music - there is an especially haunting piece Theme of Desperation using two voices which is almost painful, yet quite serene (strangely).

In all of this one has to ask what John Carter has that has been so influential in the jazz world and especially the clarinet. How does he play even? John Carter's playing is modern, at a moment when many players moved away to the saxophone, being a more powerful instrument. Carter also seems to have combined various styles in a successful way, using some more avant garde techniques yet still remaining modern and lyrical. I can really recommend his solo recording 'John Carter: A Suite of Early American Folk Pieces for Clarinet (Moers 2086)' which after the initial opening piece, which sounds a little like 'Propulsion' from Jimmy Guiffre's Free Fall album, settles into a treat for solo clarinet fans, and quite easily accessible.

Finally it's interesting listening back to John Carter hearing his music which in the case of his last recording (1989) is over 20 years ago, yet his music and playing, approach and sound and compositions are modern even for today's standards. Unfortunately more attention is placed on other players of his generation, but interestingly enough modern giants such as Tim Berne, Gerry Hemingway and William Parker have all worked with and used John Carter as a sideman, showing the respect that he held in his lifetime. I also suspect that he was a very open minded person and probably someone who encouraged other musicians younger than himself. I'm tempted to send out a few email to these players to hear the real story behind the man who has been quietly been an important influence on our modern music scene. 

Postscript :

'I'm tempted to send out a few email to these players to hear the real story behind the man who has been quietly been an important influence on our modern music scene.' Well, I did send emails out to Tim Berne and Marty Ehrlich but it seems there's no reply as yet from either. I hoping to get some response which I was looking forward to posting here as I thought some inside stories would be interesting to read. I'll keep you posted if anything shows up.  

I should really do some more in-depth work on John Carter such transcribing some of his work. I've just started reading Steve Isoardi's wonderful book (The Dark Tree) on Horace Tapscott and the development of the Los Angeles avant-garde scene which is fascinating and it of course mentions John Carter. However one wonders at point someone may be tempted to write something on Carter as he seems to have been under documented. Here's a list of links that I've found on John Carter whilst browsing the net :

WFMU - Beware of the Blog
New York Times
LA Times
University of Colorado
If You Know What I'm Saying (Blog)
Night after Night (Blog)
Mark Weber (Jazz for Mostly)
Who Can Be Fresh (Blog)

I'll tidy these links up later and make them more user friendly (I'll also add more), but in the meanwhile it's cut and paste time!

Footnote :

Please also check out this post on Bobby Bradford, an equal partner to Carter on many recordings, and I imagine a close friend also.

A group which slightly reminds me of the early work of Carter and Bradford is the Empty Cage Quartet, check them out if you have time.

* = Here's a link to what seems to be a comprehensive discography for John Carter (thanks to whoever compiled it). You can get the complete discography of John Carter here. Unfortunately everything is not available, although I see Mosaic Records is bringing out a three CD box set of some of the early discs with a few unreleased items added in.


  1. I enjoyed this post very much - thanks for writing it! Here's another good one for your link list: a lengthy essay on the early Bradford-Carter albums.

    1. Hi Jake, thanks for the kind comment.

      John Carter is a real hero for me (along with Bobby Bradford). I still listen to most of his output and am amazed that he isn't well known anymore. I was listening with a friend whose a very well known jazz drummer also, his jaw just dropped when he heard the Seeking record.

      Anyhow, I'll follow up your link and add it to my post so others can enjoy it also.

      Thanks again.


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