PR hype has eviscerated many words of their meaning, among them the currently ubiquitous diva. Three of these — of the jazz kind — are coming to town this month. This time, don't resist the hype.
The University Musical Society is bringing in three expatriate Michiganders, singers Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater and violinist Regina Carter, for a special concert on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Reeves and Bridgewater are fabulous vocalists with unique styles and solid jazz credentials who have managed to establish reputations well beyond this category of music. Carter is an amazing violinist who is also making a mark in varied forms of music.
Carter was raised in Detroit, where she started playing music at an early age and attended Cass Technical High School, known for graduating many of the Motor City's most famous artists. She began as a classical player and continued her studies at Eastman School of Music and Oakland University. But like so many of her contemporaries, she never limited herself to one kind of music and was soon playing in many different contexts, including the all-female jazz-funk combo Straight Ahead. The group came together in 1987 and soon managed to break into the national circuit, even getting a recording contract with Atlantic, for whom they recorded their first album in 1991. Carter left for New York and quickly managed to establish herself as a soloist in great demand. She played with a variety of groups, but her most memorable stay was with the innovative String Trio of New York, led by guitarist James Emory. The group explored standards, jazz compositions, and free improvisation, exploiting the timbres of its unique instrumentation of acoustic guitar, bass, and violin.
In the decade since she left the String Trio, Carter has moved into new directions, as she sought a more mainstream profile and a more commercially viable career. Her versatility and her early classical training have served her well, as she developed a style that combined a traditional technical virtuosity with modern jazz harmony and a melodic sensibility that joins the disparate worlds of Stéphane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty. At a time when major labels were weary of jazz artists, she was signed by Atlantic and Verve, and her work for these labels often reflects the compromise between commercial and artistic motivations that comes with the territory. When she is not overly constrained by marketing concepts, her playing can be first rate, as on Motor City Moments, her 1991 salute to her roots, which includes great jazz work with fellow Detroiters, including trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and her cousin, saxophone virtuoso James Carter, or on Spirit Song, her duet recording with pianist Kenny Barron. Let us hope that she will choose this kind of music-making for her Hill Auditorium date Monday, January 19.