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Friday, January 21, 2022

Daniel Carter’s Great Year: Beyond the Duet (Part 3 of 3)

We’re closing up our feature on Daniel Carter with his newest Open Question Vol. 1, which is being released TODAY (Jan 21). FJB, as ever, au courant!

By Nick Ostrum and Gary Chapin

Daniel Carter, Ayumi Ishito, Eric Plaks, Zach Swanson, Jon Panikkar – Open Question, Volume 1 (577 Records, 2022) ****½

Nick: This is the one release in this feature that is not a duet. It is also the most recent, so why not celebrate that and give it its own space?

I am not sure which group was founded first, but, for reference, Open Question features the Playfield ensemble, minus guitarists Aaron Namenwirth and Yutaka Takahashi and vocalist Luisa Muhr (voice). (See my and Gary’s reviews of the Playfield triad here and here respectively.) For me, this downsizing and relocation from the outdoors to the closed studio made me wonder how the core group of Ayumi Ishito (tenor sax), Eric Plaks (piano and Wurlitzer), Zach Swanson (bass), Jon Panikkar (drums) and Carter would fare without the cosmic flights of Namenwirth and Takahashi and Muhr’s commanding vocal presence. Although the piece Confidential BBQ approaches the free form pulsing of Playfield, even that piece seems more beholden to a classical jazz idiom. Maybe the three aforementioned were really pushing that unit into those spacier territories. What do you think, Gary? Am I missing something, or does Open Question sound a little less probing, or maybe just less curious, than the larger unit? Or does it just sound more focused?

Gary : It does sound less probing and idiomatically curious, but I don’t think it’s beholden to a jazz idiom. I think it’s a choice they made. I generally don’t have a problem with folks deciding they want to go exploring in a particular language set of music. I think back to the Carter/Shipp Dark Matrix, which sounded based in mid-sixties Miles language to me, and because of that I’ve been listening to those 5 to 7 records a bunch. Most of the pieces on Open Question do seem to start in that Nefertiti space, if more dense and eschewing head-solo-head, Carter and Ishito improvise together fantastically well. Their interplay is a joy that constantly made me stop shoveling snow today! So, two things, 1) the pieces here (except for Confidential BBQ) start in that space, but deconstruction happens as the tunes progress and the out comes in, and 2) though they’ve made the choice to use this less avant language set to make this music I’m appreciating the way their storytelling is working within that language.

Having said that, when you mentioned Muhr’s vocals on Playfield, I went back and listened and swooned. There are thousands of records she does not sing on. In fact, almost every single one. Am I going to miss her on all of them?

Nick: Fair enough and I generally agree. There is absolutely nothing wrong with plumbing some specific depths rather than focusing on breadth and boundary breaking, which frequently falls into its own patterns and tropes. And, although some of the progressions fall into jazz modes, you are right that the quintet plays with different structures. Indeed, what they lack in that visceral umph I guess I was looking for they certainly counter with some beautifully entangled phrasing.

Now that I think of it, I do wonder what I would have taken from Open Question if it were the first Carter I had listened to for this series, rather than the last, or the first collaboration with Ishito, Plaks, Swanson, and Panikkar I had encountered, rather than the second after the Playfield trifecta. Obviously, neither of us would have been wanting for Muhr had we not first heard her there. Others have made the comparison before, I am sure, but there are moments on this album (especially in Dimly-lit Platform) when Carter’s flute brings to mind that of Woody Shaw or Yusef Lateef in their more romantic moods, and Ishito seems to hit on a bouncier Lester Young at a few moments. It’s an interesting interaction, and I do not know if Muhr is missing in some of those moments. Are we/am I thinking of this too much in succession, as Playfield-minus rather than a unit in its own right, and with its own voice? It certainly stands on its own when I think outside of that comparison.

Gary : That is a sort of problem with going down a rabbit hole in a project like this. You hear everything in relation to something else. The breadth of Carter’s playing won’t be evident unless you listen to a body of work, but your appraisal of any one piece of evidence will no longer be pure if you listen all in a bunch. I say it’s a “sort of” problem because I don’t think that critical purity is desirable or possible. I can’t help that these discs evoked earlier music or that the two acoustic guitar discs reflected upon one another, or that his flute seems romantic. That’s just the way I think humans are. We take all the pieces and weave a story out of it. This story of Daniel Carter that you and I are weaving places him at the overlap point of a lot of Venn diagrams. There is a breadth to his playing but also a depth to his voice. Listening closely to six duets was a great way to surface that, with Open Question reminding us—like Playfield or New York United—that there’s more, based on evidence, so much more to hear from Carter.


Colin Green said...

Thanks for the work you’ve put into this focus feature. The dialogue format works well — it’s good to hear people having a proper conversation.