Violinist Regina Carter entered the stage with a beautiful, shimmering complexion, dressed in a gorgeous coral gown. She looked radiant. North Carolina State University’s Center Stage series presented the jazz diva, with her jazz quintet, performing a program drawn in part from her recent recording I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey, a CD in honor of her late mother. This was her third appearance at Stewart Theater.
Beaming with self-assurance, Carter’s new look with shorn locks seems to reflect her mature style. Playing with exquisite, spun gold tone, she’s pared down her musical lines, leaving behind some of the pyrotechnic violin work of her earlier performances. The moment her bow touched the string on Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Tisket, a Tasket,” she cast a magical spell on the audience. In places where she cut loose, Carter maintained that easy facility that she so admired in Stephane Grappelli’s playing. Like the double-stopped major sixths in “Jesus Loves Me” — and col legno (with the bow stick) back-up with Garnett tapping on the snare drum, Carter drew from her color palette — but without a lot of fuss.
Carter is a skilled improviser with an extraordinary “auditory library” that she attributes to the eclectic listening opportunities growing up in Detroit. Known for her quick-witted quotations, Carter slipped in a range of snippets from J.S. Bach (the Prelude from Bach's Cello Suite in G Major) and “On The Trail” (from Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite) to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Lonely Goatherd” into her solos. She brings a smile at the most unexpected moments.
From the outset, the ensemble’s sixth sense was palpable. Clarinetist Darryl Harper captured Carter’s mood; his playing was sweet, smooth and unforced. And Matthew Parrish’s facile bass playing was energizing without ever getting in the way. With the speed and precision of a balalaika player, Parrish’s gypsy-like playing on the theme from Black Orpheus was amazing yet unobtrusive. Carter's and Harper’s perfectly tuned unison playing on Duke Ellington’s “Blue Rose” was stunning. And a bluesy trio of Carter with Harper and Parrish on “Sentimental Journey” (Les Brown - Bud Green - Ben Homer) was pure bliss. Sensitive collaborator Xavier Davis’ duet with Carter on “Day in the Life of a Fool” showed the pianist's and arranger's exceptional stylistic versatility. Equally at home with "comping" and solo playing, he made it all seem easy. He and drummer Alvester Garrett seemed to read each other, anticipating every accent. No doubt, however, it is swing that brought to the house joie de vivre.
The Regina Carter Quintet, making beautiful music together, is a class-act. Before finishing the second set, Carter introduced two resident artists from the audience; composer T.J. Anderson and jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon — it was a gesture that sets jazz musicians apart. And closing with “I’ll Be Seeing You” was just too perfect for an encore.