Violinist Regina Carter has covered a lot of musical ground in her last three recordings. In 2003, she recorded a series of etudes and originals, Paganini: After a Dream (Verve) with the famed Guarneri Cannon, the violin used by the legendary Paganini. She was the first African American invited to play the famed instrument, and she was the first musician to record with it. Then in 2006, in a tribute to her mother, she covered jazz and blues classics on I'll be Seeing You (Verve). She's back with a new disc, Reverse Threads (E1 Entertainment), and on it she tackles a variety of African songs. (A sampler of live performances of the music from the recording is here.)
''It's something that has always been on my mind,'' said Carter by phone recently while shuttling from one press event to another in Manhattan. ''I grew up in Detroit, a very ethnically diverse place, and I heard a rich variety of music.'' She said she was particularly attracted to Middle Eastern and African styles.
While the thought of doing this kind of record lurked in the back of her head, she left Detroit, where she received a wealth of training in classical, pop and jazz and came to New York in the early '90s. She did a variety of work on the jazz scene and classical scene and played on recordings by Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige. She was part of a generation of jazz musicians who helped the music advance beyond the bitter internal warfare between the traditionalists and the innovators; in Carter's hands jazz is a versatile music that can blend with a wide variety of genres. .
When Carter arrived in New York, jazz violinists were few and far between. In her two decades as a performer, she has helped broaden the role for her instrument. She has added instruments with softer sounds, like an accordion, to her working band, and she has deepened the impression via her repertoire which often includes familiar classics. For instance, she's honored her Detroit roots on several occasions by recording Motown nuggets like ''Papa Was a Rolling Stone'' and ''Higher Ground.''
Now Carter can look at musical landscape that includes Daniel Bernard Roumain, whose classical, jazz and pop projects have pushed the violin's role even further from string quartet territory; Jenny Scheinman who has deftly merged the violin's country tradition with a fierce appetite for jazz experimentation; the members of Musique Noire, who are showing how well strings and percussion can work as the core of a band and many, many others.
The big facilitator for Reverse Thread came one day in 2006; Carter learned that the MacArthur Foundation had given her a Genius Grant, a $500,000 fellowship to do as she pleased. Here, she speaks about the impact of receiving the award.
The overall tone of the recording is lush and diverse. Carter's virtuosity is abetted by kora master Yacouba Sissoko, who plays the 21-string West African harp. The sound of the recording is live, something she also attributes to the award. The money gave her a chance to find a studio where the band could record as a unit rather than submit to the contemporary technique of having different instruments in different rooms. ''The MacArthur allowed me the space to create the recording I wanted and the resources to make it the way I thought it should be made.''
Reverse Thread makes a stunning addition to a rapidly growing catalogue of recent jazz recordings that feature African sounds. Reedman Oran Etkin's debut recording, Kelenia (Motema) smartly blended Malian sounds with jazz repertoire. On Peace Pipe (Palmetto), bassist Ben Allison matched wits with Malian kora master Mamadou Diabate. And the fusions are also coming from the African side as on Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra (World Circuit/Nonesuch), which features a big band and Lionel Loueke's sublime two Blue Notes discs, Karibu and Mwaliko broaden the definition of African-American music.
For Carter, creating Reverse Thread was a reminder of our interdependence. ''Doing this enabled me to see again just how much we are all connected,'' she said then paused and added cryptically ''whether we want to be or not.'
Carter giggled slightly when I asked her what big new area she was going to tackle next. ''I'm going to stay here,'' she said meaning that another African recording was in the works. ''I feel like I've just scratched the surface of what's possible.''
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.