On her recent CD, Motor City Moments, violinist Regina Carter moves seamlessly from the swing of a Thad Jones tune to the soul of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder songs. She has brought together an array of seemingly disparate compositions, all connected to her home town, Detroit.
As Carter pays tribute to some of the figures who have made Detroit a fertile musical ground, she conveys the collaborative spirit that she enjoyed while she was growing up.
"We have a rich sense of jazz history in Detroit," says Carter, whose quintet will perform Saturday at Centennial Hall. "My neighborhood had a strong sense of community, where you had to respect your neighbors."
Carter credits this community and her family with giving her the confidence to be successful as an artist.
"I come from a family in which my mother is a very strong woman," she says. "She enrolled me and my brothers at a young age in music and dance."
At age 2, Carter was picking out tunes on the piano that she had heard her older brothers play. Although she was considered too young to become a piano student at the time, she had demonstrated a strong ear. By age 4, she had become a violin student under the Suzuki method, which promoted learning by ear.
Carter mentions trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and organist Lymon Woodard, both of Detroit, as key influences in her foray into jazz from classical music.
"I used to sit in with Lymon Woodard when I was in high school," Carter says. "He was very helpful in telling me different recordings to listen to. He helped to expand my musical world.
"Belgrave had a workshop at his house. We'd learn different tunes and every aspect of being in and/or leading a band."
Carter also performed in groups that went beyond jazz and classical music, such as the pop-funk band Brainstorm, and she later played with a diverse range of luminaries including Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin. She graduated from the New England Conservatory and Michigan's Oakland University and relocated to New York in the early 1990s.
The jazz scene presented obstacles for Carter, with respect to her gender and her instrument of choice, but "I'm not one who gets turned away easily," Carter says.
"I don't think about whether I'm a woman or not," she says. "To play violin in the jazz world has been the most difficult obstacle. Record companies aren't signing violin players like they're signing saxophone players and trumpet players. In New York, I would go to jam sessions, and people wouldn't take me seriously because of the instrument."
Carter says that in the creative process behind her four CDs, she has found second-guessers in the recording industry, as well.
"Adjusting compositions for the studio is something you have to think about these days," she says. "I keep [tunes] shorter. Sometimes radio stations won't play a song because it's too long.
"I like to save the energy for live performances because you're not separated into these rooms. When you're in the recording studio, you're under the microscope and more nervous. That cuts back on spontaneity."
Carter says a key component to performance is the relationship between the musician and the audience. The Regina Carter connoisseur and the concert series ticketholder come to the auditorium with different perspectives and might have different goals as listeners.
"[The band] has a wide variety of styles," Carter says. "I can tell how [the audience] responds from the first two tunes."
At a recent performance, Carter sensed that the audience was looking for some classic material, so she and the band sneaked "Chattanooga Choo Choo" into the set. "I stuck it in to give them what they could relate to," she says.
As a listener herself, Carter avoids boundaries. Material she has absorbed recently includes music by Latin singers, old blues played on violins and Spanish classical music. Carter says a lot of what she listens to winds up in her playing.
"If it's something I'm really taken by, it'll influence me," she says. "Because I learned by ear mostly, a lot of things get into my playing that I don't realize until they've come out. Everything we listen to inspires us in some way."
Carter, a Down Beat Critics Poll winner, says the violin has the potential to gain prominence in jazz.
"Universities are offering jazz programs for strings," she says. "There are books available for people interested in playing jazz on a string instrument. What's going to help or hurt is whether record companies sign the players.
"A lot of people up in age are a big part of jazz history. I can't understand why people don't sign them."
The Regina Carter Quintet will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 7 at Centennial Hall on the University of Arizona campus. Tickets cost $16, $22 and $28, and discounts are available for students, children, UA employees and UApresents subscribers. For more information, call the UApresents box office at 621-3341.