For a man best known for performing in the New York City subway, saxophonist Daniel Carter is remarkably soft-spoken on his horn. True, he's got a heavy helping of Ornette, especially when he climbs into the upper register, with that same slightly shredded, achy peal. But just as often, Carter stays down in a kind of conversational mid-range, where he strings together thoughts, dreams, and melodies, like the man who rarely raises his voice, drawing you to listen even closer. You realize it's actually the perfect way to be heard over the express train.
Polestar first anniversary festival of creative music Daniel Carter and Reuben Radding with Gregg Keplinger Polestar Music Gallery, 206-329-4224, $8 8 p.m. Fri., May 9; festival runs Thurs., May 8-Sun., May 18
Carter, along with bassist Reuben Radding, will be in town this weekend to help celebrate the one-year anniversary of Polestar Music Gallery, Seattle's home for improvisational and experimental sounds. Polestar has succeeded where other adventurous venues have quickly failed, thanks in large part to the unique passion and professionalism of its proprietors, Henry Hughes and Peggy Sartoris-Belaqua. They run the place like a tight-ship performing-arts operation, not a loft-space-backroom-after-hours afterthought. In addition to booking some of the biggest names in the recondite world of new music, they've provided a stage where local sound creators, who normally offer their work as noise-ground at cafes and art installations, can be heard and appreciated by a seated audiencesometimes for better, sometimes for worse. For its anniversary party, Polestar will host performances that reflect the breadth of its vision: acoustic European free jazz to aggressively plugged-in anti-jazz; Seattle and worldwide; unusual solo performances, etc. (See www.polestarmusic.org for details.)
Daniel Carter fits somewhere in the middle of all this. A famously thoughtful and unassuming musician, whose anarchist philosophy is embodied in an absolute dedication to spontaneous playingno rehearsing, no composing, just startCarter also believes in taking his music directly to the masses; he spent much of the last decade performing in the N.Y.C. subways, solo and with a pair of bands. There's something so approachable and humane in his sound that it's easy to imagine harried straphangers pausing in their tracks.
A taste of what's ahead at Polestar can be sampled on two recent CDs, both recorded in Seattle: Luminescence (AUM Fidelity) presents Carter in duo with Radding; Language (Origin) adds Seattle drummer Gregg Keplinger (who'll also be at Polestar for the second set). Language is the more immediately satisfying disc, with the great trapsman adding his intense roar and rumble, stretching a kind of percussive sinew across the more spacious melodies from the bass and sax. The disc's 20-minute title track offers about as solid a lesson as you're likely to hear in building meaningful musicalshapes from the expanse of wide-open improvisation. I only wish Carter had cut out once in a while and let Radding's explosive bass lines follow their own inspired course.
Luminescence is in some ways the more intriguing disc, the one you want to hear multiple times. Much of it was recorded live at the 2001 Earshot Jazz Festival (a time when Radding was living in Seattle), and without drums to bind and propel them, Carter and Radding form a strangely complementary, yet divided, unit. Bass and piano can't help but interact constantlythey're in each other's way. But bass and sax seem to have an intimacy that matches the best of relationships: They work well together because they're so independentat least that's how it sounds when Carter and Radding are onstage. Radding is simply inexhaustible in his ideas, always introducing new textures and motifs, while Carter goes on his own beautiful path, with single deliberate notes, creating songs and stories. There's something amazingly affectless in his playing: no licks, no schtick, no fallbacks, not even an emotion you could really name, but a boundless search for the next note that feels very uplifting.
Despite the pretentious title, this is unpretentious music. It's free jazz, but of a kind that's extremely focused; as if the freedom doesn't prompt the players to let loose and blast away all parameters, but rather to concentrate all the more on saying just the right thing.