One of the new breed of jazz players who is trained in classical music, saxophonist James Carter has shown promise for the past decade. Whether on the bandstand with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Betty Carter and Kathleen Battle or leading his own ensembles in the recording studio, the Detroit native may have caught your ear with his liquid style and eye, for he is a fine-looking young man. But Carter often seemed to be trying to find himself somewhere outside the neoclassical jazz arena, and he's finally done it with the electrified Layin' in the Cut, a set of hip and funky free-improvisations featuring players from the downtown New York scene: bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, drummer G. Calvin Weston and guitarists Marc Ribot and Jef Lee Johnson.
Tacuma and Weston come out of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time band of the '70s, and that frenetic feel dominates the screaming "Motown Mash." But Carter is such a lyrical player, and his tone is always as big as those of the Texas tenor players of the '50s, that even the more far-out material works. Coleman's concept of collective improvisation is much mellower on the title cut, "Requiem for Hartford Ave.," and the howling blues of "Drafadelic in D-flat." Carter's own compositions, "There's a Paddle" and "GP," are tamer because the playing is centered on a composition rather than improvisation. But guitarists Johnson and Ribot are both such singular players that anything they do has an edge to it.
Issued at the same time as Layin' in the Cut is another Carter CD, Chasin' the Gypsy, the saxophonist's salute to guitarist Django Reinhardt. It, too, is a delightful album featuring stellar band members like Regina Carter on violin and drummer Joey Baron. But for spirited ensemble playing that takes the jazz tradition into the future, there has not been another release this year as exemplary as Layin' in the Cut.