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Viva Regina!
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From Stuff Smith to Stephane Grappelli to Jean-Luc Ponty, jazz musicians have used the violin’s unique bowed sound, its freeing lack of frets and its warm yet piercing tone — often described as the closest of all instruments to the human voice — to great effect.

But history may remember Regina Carter as the best of the lot. Drawing from jazz violin tradition as well as adding new touches of her own — particularly in percussive technique — the Grammy nominee has released five critically-acclaimed CDs in addition to numerous collaborations with other artists, and continues to tour the world in front of large audiences.

She plays this Saturday evening at the Lucas in honor of the Savannah Black Heritage Festival.

Perhaps the greatest honor bestowed on Carter was being chosen in 2001 to play the legendary “Cannon” violin, once owned by the great Niccolo Paganini himself. The Guarneri masterpiece, nicknamed for its unprecedented volume and boomy tone, was gifted to the city of Genoa, Italy, upon Paganini’s death in 1840.

In a gesture of solidarity after the Sept. 11 attacks, city fathers chose Carter herself to play the instrument in December of that year — a rare occasion for the pampered and closely guarded national treasure, even rarer for the fact that Carter is a jazz musician. The experience inspired Carter to record an entire album devoted to the Cannon’s former owner, Paganini: After a Dream, in 2003.

We spoke to Carter last week by phone.

Connect Savannah: You’re in Savannah the night before the Super Bowl will be held in your hometown of Detroit. Are you zipping back to Motown for the game?

Regina Carter: No, I don’t really live in Detroit anymore. I guess they’ll just have to play the game without me (laughs).

Connect Savannah: As a classically-trained violinist, you actually came to study jazz comparatively late in life. What turned you on to that style?

Regina Carter: It came at a good time for me. I wasn’t exposed to jazz at all until high school, when I heard Carla Cook and some friends of mine talk about Eddie Jefferson, Sarah Vaughan and Ella. Then I went to see Noel Pointer, Stephane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty. Grappelli was the first live jazz concert I saw as a teenager. That showed me there was something else to study besides European classical music. Jazz has this sense of freedom that I find very attractive.

Connect Savannah: You’ve said that classical music features more improvisation than most people realize.

Regina Carter: Well, baroque music does, classical really doesn’t. There are definitely elements of improvisation in baroque music, which you can see, for example, in early works by Telemann and Bach. Sometimes the only part that would be written completely was the figured bass, and it was just known that you would be improvising the melody. If you look at the Bach partitas for violin, they’re all meant to be improvised.

Connect Savannah: After Sept. 11 you were chosen to play Paganini’s “Cannon” in Italy. Tell us about the moment you found out you’d be the one to play it.

Regina Carter: My friends were really instrumental in setting that up. It wasn’t that Genoa was out looking for a non-classical player to play that violin. I had just finished recording Motor City Moments, which John Clayton had written the string arrangements for. Once his friends heard the rehearsals, somebody said, “We should try to do that concert in Italy.” So they proposed the idea to the powers-that-be in Genoa. It was a long process. When they said yes, I was in disbelief.

Connect Savannah: There was a lot of hoopla surrounding your introduction to “The Cannon” itself.

Regina Carter: Well, when you think about it, with a 250-year-old violin they do have to be careful. But it was funny how they brought it to me in Genoa. The violin got its own car, with police lights flashing and its own security. But I guess it does need that. It’s a very valuable instrument. It obviously can’t be played all the time, but on the other hand, vibration has to be constantly be going through a violin, or the wood chokes up and it can sound terrible. A balance has to be there.

Connect Savannah: How did they like a jazz musician playing that instrument?

Regina Carter: After I played the violin, one of the violin keepers said he actually preferred me playing it as opposed to a classical player. He said I respected the violin more. When you play jazz, it’s a lot of light bow strokes. It causes less damage to the violin than heavy-duty concerto bowing, where you tend to get a lot of bow nicks and you’re really digging into the strings.

Connect Savannah: Middle Eastern music has featured a wide variety of bowed stringed instruments for centuries. Have you delved much into those ancient Middle Eastern or Asian styles?

Regina Carter: No, not a whole lot. It’s certainly nothing I’ve studied, anyway. And that’s strange, because I come from Detroit, which has the largest Chaldean population in North America.

In New York City I got a chance to work with some Middle Eastern singers. Those are some really hard scales. They’re so different from ours. Even a half-step that we would think sounds out of tune actually belongs to a scale. It’s definitely challenging.

Connect Savannah: And in some scales the notes change depending on whether you’re ascending or descending the scale.

Regina Carter: Yes. But you know, I’ve got enough dealing with the ones we’ve got here (laughs). But I love all styles of music. It’s nice to hear all those strings in Middle Eastern orchestras. It’s really beautiful.

Connect Savannah: My daughter is taking violin class at her school. What advice do you have to help the very young player?

Regina Carter: You have to expose her to as much violin music as you can. If she’s into hip-hop, for example, there are some really good hip-hop violinists out there. You should expose her to every style that incorporates violin — Irish fiddle, bluegrass, blues, Arabic, everything. You never know what’s going to inspire her. And there’s nothing you can tell her. Just expose her to a lot and she’ll find something on her own.

Connect Savannah: What’s next for you?

Regina Carter: I just finished working on a new project, coming out in June. It’s music from the 1920s through the ‘40s. I now have a clarinet player and an accordion player, with vocals by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Carla Cook. It’s a big departure for me, because I’ve had percussion the whole time.

Connect Savannah: You feature a lot of percussive technique in your own playing. Where does that come from?

Regina Carter: If I didn’t play the violin I’d be a percussion player. I guess it first came from me just mimicking other instruments. I use those techniques now, whether it be in bowing or using the back of bow — which is actually a technique called col legno. I’m basically imitating sounds I’ve heard.

One thing I’ve never done is ask another musician how they do something. I don’t ask other violinists how they do things. I believe that everybody should just come up with their own idiosyncrasies.

Connect Savannah: You’re playing in honor of Black History Month. Are you totally behind the concept or are you more in Morgan Freeman’s camp on that?

Regina Carter: A little of both. I do agree with Morgan Freeman when he asks, why just have black history relegated to one month that we celebrate? But then again, I also believe we need to start somewhere.

First of all, our history needs to be correctly taught and correctly put in history books. So much history — not just black history — has been rewritten and rewritten wrong. A lot of people don’t want to own up to their responsibility for some of the ugly things that have happened to build this country. The first step is for them to own up to their wrongdoing. Which is not going to happen (laughs).

But I’m certainly not going to say I’m not going to participate in Black History Month. It’s very important for me personally. It’s important whenever I can to teach and learn and to celebrate my own culture.

And hey -- it’s a festival and I’ve got a chance to come to Savannah and play!

Regina Carter performs this Saturday, Feb. 4, at 8 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre as part of the Savannah Black Heritage Festival. Tickets are free, but as we go to press they have all been reserved. However, any empty seats at 7:50 p.m. will be given to those waiting in line.