Although James Carter played the soprano, alto and tenor saxophones in succession during his sizzling performance as the opening act at the Lowdown Hudson Blues Festival Thursday evening at the Waterfront Plaza in the Financial District, there were times when he seemed to be playing all three at once, sounding like a rip-snorting version of the World Saxophone Quartet or Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Carter, as the jazz world has come to know, is a powerful musician with an ability to emit just about every conceivable sound from his horns. Sometimes this is done in an incredible feat of circular breathing—or at least that appeared to be the effect during his first number on the soprano.
He has a way of a blending an assortment of squeaks, honks and melodic passages without losing the essence of a song, and he always knows exactly when to subdue the cascade of notes to allow his able sidemen—Gerard Gibbs on the Hammond B3 organ and drummer Eli Fountain—to complement his fierce urgency of now.
If his performance on the soprano was one sustained riff on a Matthew Gee original, his moment with the alto saxophone had a Lou Donaldson resonance, as he alternately harmonized and contrasted with Gibbs’ blistering pace that bore all the earmarks of Jack McDuff. Like his leader, Gibbs is a crowd-pleasing artist with a keen understanding of when to stop and tickle a tune.
When Carter picks up the tenor saxophone, you can expect the full arsenal of funk as well as his genius. Plus, there’s his tendency to push his horn and the trio to the edge of its broad capabilities. The ballad gave Carter a chance—from cadenza to coda—to invoke a history of maestros on the horn, including a dash of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and, most excitingly, a smidgen of Louis Jordan.
On the trio’s last number, a straight-ahead blues stomp, Fountain and Gibbs socked each other knowing glances along with their attention to Carter’s foray into the lowdown territory. Gibbs matched each of Carter’s smacks of his horn, and Fountain provided additional conversation with a nice rumble from his bass and tom-tom drums.
This was the trio at its scintillating best, and the audience was on its feet with a call for more, but there were other acts to follow, so the crowd would have to store that energy until the next time.