James Carter Shares His Love for ‘Lockjaw’

Like Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Carter is an aggressive and highly entertaining player with prodigious technique — an endless supply of chops.

Beth Naji
James Carter at Birdland. Beth Naji

James Carter Band, ‘Lookin’ at the Lock – Music of Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis’
Birdland through March 4

James Carter doesn’t announce a song by saying, “Now we’re going to play …,” and much less, “Now here’s ….” What he does say is, “We are now going to deal with this,” by which he means, “We are about to perform the following.” 

He also takes the unusual tactic of doing virtually all of his talking in the first 10 minutes of the set. During his early show at Birdland on Tuesday, he started by speaking of his great love for the legendary tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (1922-86). Mr. Carter then announced all of the evening’s eight tunes — five Davis originals and three standards — and, over the course of the next 90 minutes or so, dealt with them.

Edward F. Davis, known to one and all as “Lockjaw,” was an outstanding improviser with a big, warm tone. Even more than most other tenor giants of the golden age, he was both a frighteningly fierce combatant and a warmly romantic balladeer. 

Davis was born in the right time and place to be part of the first wave of modern jazz: in the mid-1940s, he served as the lynchpin of the jam sessions at Minton’s even while playing in the big bands of Cootie Williams and Lucky Millinder, and also led a series of small group sessions billed as by “Eddie Davis and his Beboppers.” From 1952 onward, he was the tenor star of the Count Basie “New Testament” band, but throughout the ’60s and ’70s he also worked prolifically with small groups and in organ-driven “soul jazz” combos.

Like Davis, Mr. Carter is an aggressive and highly entertaining player with prodigious technique — an endless supply of chops. He seems to have fully absorbed a hundred years of saxophone greatness, especially the harmonic acumen of Don Byas and an embrace of the rasps, snarls, bites, and great barbaric yawps of so-called outside players like David Murray — what we might call “special effects.” At Birdland, he is joined by trumpeter Satish Robertson, pianist Gerard Gibbs, veteran bassist Hilliard Greene, and drummer Kahlil Kwame Bell.

Most of the tunes that Mr. Carter “dealt with” were from Davis’s early “bebopper” sessions, a period in which, before he was billed as “Lockjaw,” he was nicknamed “Dr. Jazz.” Two, in fact, have medical titles, “Surgery” and “Callin’ Dr. Jazz.” A third is named after Davis’s daughter, “Sheila,” and as for the fourth, well, it’s “Just a Mystery.”  The fifth also has a mysterious title, “Bingo Domingo.” 

Nearly all the originals were bright and boppish — mostly based on blues or “I Got Rhythm” chord changes. On “Callin’ Dr. Jazz,” Mr. Robertson played with a tight harmon mute that not only suggested Fats Navarro on the original 1946 session, but reminded us of Lockjaw’s long later collaboration with fellow Basie-ite Harry “Sweets” Edison. Davis’s 1953 recording introduces us to yet another jazz subgenre that he favored, Afro-Latin sounds, in the form of a bongo player who seems to be unlisted in the discographies. 

Mr. Carter’s new interpretation was faster, harder, and less and styled more for listening than dancing. “Surgery” started out with a heavy, funkish, almost hip-hop-ish backbeat, but mellowed out into a more traditionally bluesy groove before the doctor had finished operating.

The centerpiece of the evening was a bravura reading of what might be the ultimate jazz ballad, “Body and Soul,” which Davis performed on many occasions and has served to test the mettle of many a saxophone colossus. Mr. Carter began unaccompanied and abstract with a commanding cadenza, detouring through growls and barks before entering sideways into the familiar melody.  

For the first chorus, Mr. Carter played the central A sections and Mr. Robertson the bridge, before they reversed roles. Mr. Carter’s solo was a triumph of drama, building to some stratospheric notes that aren’t really even on the saxophone, and concluding with an expected and welcome unaccompanied cadenza for a coda, proving that he isn’t just just a jazz man but also a show man.

The final two tunes, “Bahia” and “How Am I to Know?,” were both derived from the 1962 album “Tough Tenor Favorites,” a collaboration with another meaningful musical — not to mention mustachioed — partner, fellow tough tenor Johnny Griffin. On both, Mr. Robertson’s trumpet served as a sonic substitute for the second saxophone.  

Mr. Carter’s take on “Bahia” (aka, “Na Baixa do Sapateiro”) was a notably even less Brazilian treatment than the 1962 recording; Mr. Carter even quoted “Girl from Ipanema” in his fade out, as if to signify that this was distinctly not a Stan Getz kind of a jazz samba. Likewise, Mr. Carter’s treatment of “How Am I to Know?” is even tougher than the “Tough Tenors” interpretation; in 1962 it was highly danceable with a lightly Basie-esque beat, while Mr. Carter’s was more hard-edged with exaggerated dynamics. It proved a suitable closer.

Although Mr. Carter waxed very eloquently about his passion for the playing of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, there was one thing he didn’t tell us.  He’s put so much work into this project and the results are so rewarding, we have to assume he’s going to do “Lookin’ at the Lock – Music of Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis” as his next album. I could certainly deal with that.

The New York Sun

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