"I was afraid to touch the violin at first. But then I convinced myself, 'This is the moment you've always dreamed of, you better do something with it.'" -- Regina Carter In the wake of 9/11, the city of Genoa, Italy, reached out to New York City by offering its greatest civic treasure: Il Cannone, or The Cannon, the legendary violin of classical genius Nicolo Paganini. Upon his death in 1840, Paganini bequeathed his instrument to Genoa, whose citizens have since safeguarded Il Cannone with armed guards and extremely limited use. In an act of international goodwill, Genoa planned a benefit concert utilizing Il Cannone, with proceeds benefiting the Sept. 11 Fund and Doctors Without Borders.
The recipient of this gesture was new-school jazz luminary Regina Carter, a Detroit native and New York City resident. Blessed with a unique mastery of the violin as jazz messenger, Carter has risen to prominence in recent years, and on Friday, May 2, makes her Jazz Fest debut as a bandleader. She comes equipped with a new album, Paganini: After a Dream (Verve), inspired from one of the most compelling concerts in recent memory.
Carter's participation in the milestone event almost didn't happen.
"I thought, 'Forget it, it's too difficult to deal with,'" Carter says with a laugh during a recent phone interview. She faced the prospect of being the first African American and jazz artist to play Il Cannone -- and was met with resistance.
"A lot of people were really opposed to me playing," the 36-year-old Carter says. "To them, it's a national treasure. There's the belief that jazz would devalue the instrument. They feel like jazz is a lesser music than European classical. I was ticked off about it at first, but I eventually simmered down."
Carter endured a rigorous screening process that included email interviews with probing questions about her musical pedigree. (Her classical training turned out to be a huge plus.) A set list was submitted for approval, and in December 2001, Carter arrived in Genoa.
Her first appearance was a press conference before a hostile media reporting to an unconvinced public. With two days left before the concert, 1,500 tickets to the 2,000-seat venue remained unsold. But Carter's charm dominated the press conference, and almost immediately, the concert sold out. "Controversy sells," Carter says.
In rehearsal, Carter learned the strict protocol surrounding Il Cannone first-hand. A violin maker brought the instrument to Palazzo Tursi (Genoa's City Hall), where he first closed the curtains to protect it from sunlight. Then he adjusted the radiator to protect the violin from humidity, before placing the instrument on a red velvet cloth.
"I thought, 'Is Paganini gonna sit up in here or something?" Carter recalls, laughing. "I was afraid to touch the violin at first. But then I convinced myself, 'This is the moment you've always dreamed of, you better do something with it.'"
Carter made the most of her opportunity. She gently opened the concert with Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain." By the time Carter closed with Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso" -- a tribute to Paganini, whose gift for violin playing was popularly believed to have resulted from selling his soul to Satan -- the crowd erupted, rising for one of three encores.
Carter created Paganini: After a Dream in November 2002 in New York. After laying down nine tracks, Carter returned to Genoa to overdub her parts using Il Cannone.
"The sound is so incredibly different," Carter says of the sacred violin. "It's so loud, you don't need a mic. It has a personality all its own. It's feisty. No one can really figure out why those violins have such huge, dark and round sounds."
In the studio, she enjoys the company of her longtime band, which will accompany her to the Fair Grounds: pianist Vana Gierig, bassist Chris Lightcap, drummer Alvester Garnett and percussionist Mayra Casales. Her intact touring ensemble has allowed a closeness, Carter says, that is perfect for their improvisational nature.
"We all know each other so well, we trust each other and take more chances," Carter says. "We're not playing the safe route. We'll take a mistake and let the moment catch it and stretch it out. It's such a cohesive sound now."
The live Regina Carter Quartet sound is punctuated by Carter's gritty violin work, as well as the danceable Latin grooves of Cuban-born Casales and Gierig's stirring piano work. Their smooth studio sound is evident on Carter's breakthrough album, 1999's Rhythms of the Heart, which manages subtle funk on a version of the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," featuring brilliant vocals from jazz diva Cassandra Wilson. Paganini: After a Dream is marked by improvisations over light melodies, indicative of the compositional style of the early 20th century French composers Carter covers on the album.
Carter, who has toured with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Mary J. Blige to Aretha Franklin, enjoys the live format -- the ensemble tours eight months a year -- but realizes the incredible feat that is Paganini: After a Dream.
"This record is pretty magical," Carter says. "When we were recording, everyone's playing just shot up, as we knew we were working on something special.
"This record was a big lesson for me," she continues. "I never thought the whole thing would have happened. The album is named after a dream becoming your reality. If you get around all life's obstacles, the universe will bless you with all you want. To me, that's this record."