OFFBEAT, FEB. 25, 2016:
More than a decade ago, jazz violinist Regina Carter became the first non-classical musician to play Niccolo Paganini’s highly guarded, handcrafted Guarneri violin, an instrument that dates back to 1743 and is counted among the most precious items in classical music history.
She used it to record 2003’s Paganini: After a Dream, an homage to the musician who first owned it that incorporated bop and Latin-inspired arrangements reflecting the violin’s 260-year-old history.
A few years after the album’s release, Carter was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship—or “Genius Grant”—and decided to use the money to fund a closer look at her own history.
Digging into the musical undercurrents in her family’s heritage, Carter has spent the past few years connecting the dots between herself and her mother (I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey), her ancestors (Reverse Thread) and most recently, her grandfather, whose experience as a coal miner in Alabama inspired her 2014 release, Southern Comfort, which she brings to the CAC on March 11.
Carter’s vision for the album began focused on coal mining songs, she says, but soon expanded to cover the blues, gospel, old-world country and folk music as she delved further into her research of the period during which her grandfather lived and the regions that surrounded his native Alabama. Studying field recordings from the Library of Congress, as well as whatever oral histories she could piece together from speaking to distant relatives and others, she developed a list of songs that she used as jumping off points for new arrangements.
Like much of her work, the results are a seamless mix of multiple genres that lead with her lush, soulful tone and creative approach to arranging and improvising.
In this interview, the violinist reflects on her research process, the emotional response she had to the music she discovered and more.
What got you interested in this specific aspect of your family’s past? Did your grandfather share the music he’d heard when he was coal mining with you when you were a little girl?
My grandfather died before I was even born so it made this process even more difficult. My whole life I’ve been very curious about my past, my family—my ancestors. So when I received the MacArthur award I decided to take some time and do some research. I joined ancestry.com and did the whole DNA test and the first record, Reverse Thread, was sort of about my findings.
The results came back 70 percent West African, I think 15 percent Finnish and some other sprinklings here and there. So Reverse Thread was just kind of a mixture reflecting that.
And then I decided to just really concentrate on my father’s side of the family. I didn’t know anything about my grandfather. And my only memories [of him] were from childhood, spending summers with my grandmother and a lot of my aunts and uncles down in Alabama in their home. I found it to be pretty difficult to get information about him, but I knew when he was born and I knew he was a coal miner. So I just started listening to the music and doing research as to what was happening historically during that time period. And the field recordings I found were so beautiful, amazing, raw, intriguing that I decided to try to piece a story together, to piece my family together, through music.
Was it difficult to get people in your family or otherwise to open up about the more challenging aspects of that period in American history?
Most of that information I got from reading historical books and knowing what was going on as far as being an African-American coal miner, being a coal miner period. The life that they were living back then. Because I wasn’t really getting information from my own family. No one seemed to recall or remember him. That made me more intrigued, because I thought, ‘Why don’t you want to remember him?’ I finally found the youngest family member who gave me some information. But most of that was coming from books. And people would say, ‘Oh, check out this book or this article,’ people that had maybe grandfathers that were born around the same time that were coal miners in the Appalachia region. So it came from just kind of sharing information with different kinds of people and knowing what life was like based on my findings.
What keeps you coming back to this idea of looking to your heritage for musical inspiration? Can you describe the satisfaction it brings you?
For me, it’s like I know that I belong to something. It’s like your faith if someone has a faith. But with faith it’s a blind faith depending on what you believe in. This helped me to say, ‘Who am I? Why do I play music? Why do I like the things I like? Why is my personality like this?’ And it’s like oh… My grandmother played piano and my great uncle played banjo, maybe that’s where I got it from. Or this person has this personality trait and I have it, or this person went through this and they were strong and if they could get through that then it helps me when I’m crying about something or thinking this is too difficult. It’s not to negate my feelings, it’s just to remember that people have gone through much more just to have what I have. That gives me the extra push to get up and keep moving.
What’s something you found that helped you connect yourself to older family members?
Music, that’s the biggest thing that I got directly from my mother’s mother and an uncle on my father’s side. And then just other personality traits I could see throughout my family. So it’s just kind of interesting, like sometimes my mother would say, ‘Oh, you’re just like your father.’ [laughs] And you always think they’re just saying that but it’s like yeah, she’s right. Or learning about my grandfather it’s like, ‘OK, we got that characteristic out of his personality traits.’
Another thing was they were hired workers. My grandparents have 14 children and my dad was the oldest. Seeing how their children had a very strong work ethic and left home and most of them moved up to Detroit and got odd jobs and how they really helped each other, it was a very close family bond. They all believed in working hard. Whatever it was you have to work hard and succeed and go forward and they passed that on generation after generation.
And on my mother’s side, my grandmother was the first person in their family to go to college and graduate. She graduated in 1915 with a degree in pedagogy so I have that degree on my wall. So that helps—all of those little things—looking at photographs, listening to this music. With the field recordings even though I know it’s not directly of them, the recordings are from people that lived during that time. It’s a connection for me and a source of strength.
Was there anything you learned about the music, whether it was song form or instrumental technique or something else, that surprised you when you studied the field recordings?
When I listened to the field recordings I didn’t go in with any preconceived ideas or theoretical or analytic point, I just listened for the sake of listening. I was just trying to capture that time period, trying to make that connection because the music was my way of connecting to the past. And just listening and having a gut, natural reaction and choosing the songs that I chose off of that reaction. The question I asked myself was just: Did I have some kind of emotional reaction to it?
What choices did you make with the arrangements when it came to staying true to the period in which the originals were written?
Because we were reimagining these tunes, if you will, we couldn’t sound like that time period because we aren’t of that [period]. And I didn’t want to do that and I knew people were going to hear this on the radio so it was my way of presenting the songs in a manner that people would maybe listen to them and be interested in hearing the original.
At concerts I pick maybe two or three of the songs and play a snippet of the original. And then play the arrangement we came up with.
It was a long process because we’d come up with an idea and play through it and some of the tunes just didn’t work for me with my instrument and then some, we’d play through them and then I’d listen back and I’d say, ‘Okay this works, this doesn’t work, let’s try this.’ It was really just playing and seeing how does this feel and hoping the whole process would be a natural flow.
How did you approach your instrument differently for this project? Were there certain cases where you tried to capture the feeling of a particular character from the past?
There are certain tunes that I tried to do that with, like “Miner’s Child.” But that in itself is a whole technique. A group that does that so well is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but they really studied that, so it’s not something I can just mimic. With some of the tunes, I made just a nod to that time period but [was] not really trying to present that sound.
What were the biggest challenges in maintaining the historic roots of a song while updating it in a way that made sense for you?
I think trying to really respect the music because the melodies are so simple and sometimes things that are the most simple are the most difficult. So [I was] trying to really highlight or hold onto the beauty and rawness that I heard in those tracks but at the same time allow our own voice to come through. It’s a balancing act.
What are you working on next?
I’m starting on the next project which is a tribute to Ella [Fitzgerald] and taking some tunes that Ella recorded that weren’t so popular and again, trying to present them not just in a straightforward [way], but trying to do something creative with that process so that I have a voice within that as well and am not just rerecording a tune. Just like Southern Comfort and Reverse Thread, it’s a long, kind of drawn-out process with me, but I enjoy it. It’s just hard to get started because I know it’s going to take a minute and sometimes I have no patience.
You started out with a list of about 50 songs you’d found in your research that you thought could work for this project. What made the tunes that landed on that list stand out for you?
It really all is a very organic process for me, so it’s all based on a feeling. I don’t do anything from a technical standpoint. If it strikes me on some kind of emotional level then I would say, ‘Hey, let me try this.’ It was based on an immediate reaction I would have and then by myself start to mess around with it, then I would know this will work or won’t. And then also getting together with some of the other musicians and playing, then that would also let us know whether it would work or not.
Were there any songs that you knew immediately would be perfect for this project?
Yes. “I’m Going Home On the Mornin’ Train” and “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy.” When I heard that it was like a distant memory of hearing my mother rocking me on her lap, singing or humming something like that. And when we play it, so many people, whether they’re from the United States or not, feel the same way. I played a gig once and some people were in town from Finland and they were like, ‘We sing that song only we sing it like this.’ So it seemed like it was a universal piece.