An extravagant offering that pays homage as it points to the future, these two CDs reaffirm James Carter's position as one of the top modern saxophonists. Their execution is more than equal to their ambition. They represent jazz as it should be: streetwise, sophisticated, passionate, and engaged. What the discs have in common may be as significant as their differences: dual guitar arrangements, Carter's ardent playing, and an appetite for the unusual in voicing and attitude.
The way they differ is telling, too. Chasin' is an homage to similarly eclectic gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt; the more contemporary Layin' is Carter's testimonial to funk, Motown, and "outside" jazz, all rolled into one. Less melodic than Chasin', Layin' is at least as lyrical. And it's far more topical and social. Chasin' lays Carter's euphonious caterwaul against the velvet accordion of Charlie Giordano, Regina Carter's virtuosic, impish fiddle, and the acoustic guitars of Jay Berliner and Romero Lubambo. The tracks span the pastoral "La Dernière Bergère" ("The Last Shepherdess"), the wonderfully swaggering "Artillerie Lourde" ("Heavy Artillery"), and the mysterious "Oriental Shuffle." No matter what he blows, he connects.
Layin' finds Carter in more electric mode, sparked by the choppy guitar of Marc Ribot, Jamaaladeen Tacuma's purposeful bass, G. Calvin Weston's ubiquitous drums, and the precise rhythms of guitarist Jef Lee Johnson. The music evokes some of James Blood Ulmer's bluesier efforts, but Carter's depth is his own, particularly on the achingly funky "Requiem for Hartford Ave." and the highly locomotive "Terminal B." In case you were wondering whether Carter can play rhythm & blues, check out "Drafadellic in D Flat" and "There's a Paddle," blasting tracks with Carter all over his horn, the guitars skronking hard, Tacuma and Johnson in hot pursuit. Layin', with its nods to Motown and Carter predecessors such as David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford, ends up in the best Atlantic tradition of rhythm & blues: evoking a time when jazz and R&B were kissing cousins, not distant relatives.