Picks and Pans Review: Shadows on a Wall

updated 04/09/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/09/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

John Carter

John Carter is the Alex Haley of the jazz world. A clarinetist and avant-garde composer with a passion for history, Carter has been exploring the roots and folklore of African Americans in an epic five-suite series released in separate installments during the past decade. Each work stands alone, but they share resonances.

The previous segments, Dauwhe, Castles of Ghana and Dance of the Love Ghosts, took listeners on an impressionistic journey from Africa to America during the era of slavery; Fields evoked the struggles of slaves and impoverished freedmen in the agricultural South. Shadows on a Wall, the concluding suite, follows the migration of blacks to the cities of the North in search of illusory dreams.

Leading an octet of veteran free-jazz players on Shadows, Carter draws upon the rich legacy of the blues and gospel while leaving ample space for the improvisational magic that makes African American music so unique. The vamps are ominous on "Sippie Strut," a simmering pot of urban anger anchored by Fred Hopkins's gutsy plucking on bass. Drummer Andrew Cyrille lays down a light tap-dance rhythm under a whispered scat vocal by Terry Jenoure on "Spats," which features an elliptical clarinet solo by Carter and reveals his mastery of the instrument from its woody low register to its piercing high end. "City Streets" is distinguished by a growling blues exchange between Benny Powell on trombone and Bob Bradford on trumpet. And "52nd Street Stomp," an homage to the New York City thoroughfare where bebop took root in the late '40s, includes some space-age comping—using computerized synthesizers—by former Frank Zappa keyboardist Don Preston and a muted choral rendition of "Yes, My Jesus Lives."

There is a free-floating and occasionally ethereal feel to Carter's arrangements. The chamber jazz instrumentation leaves the harmonies stretched thin and the music seems to beg for more treatment by a larger orchestra. Given the economics of the recording industry, however, Carter's completion of his five-suite series is itself a miracle. And his work supports the notion that jazz is indeed America's classical music. (Gramavision)

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