Paul Carr may have left Texas many years back, but the soulful, big-toned tenor saxophone sound associated with the state never left the way he blows his horn. Carr—long a key figure on the Washington, DC area jazz scene, both as a player and as an educator—pays homage to his Houston roots with his fourth CD as a leader, Straight Ahead Soul on his own PCJ label, particularly to two legendary tenor men from that city—Arnett Cobb and Don Wilkerson—who had served as mentors during his formative days.
Straight Ahead Soul is in some respects a sequel to Carr’s previous release, 2008’s critically-acclaimed Musically Yours: Remembering Joe Henderson. (Down Beat gave it four stars.) New Yorker Lewis Nash, one of the most in-demand drummers in jazz for the past three decades, is back on board. “He plays the right thing at the right time, right dynamic level, and he swings his butt off,” Carr says of Nash. And so is DC bassist Michael Bowie, whose credits include work with the Harper Brothers, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Patti LaBelle, Angie Stone, and many others. “He can play a lot of different types of music well,” Carr notes.
Rounding out the core group on the disc are pianist Allyn Johnson and percussionist Sam “Seguito” Turner—both from DC—and Chicago-based guitarist Bobby Broom.
“I wanted to have someone that could play a bluesy, gospel, soulful sound who was really a hip jazz piano player,” Carr says of Johnson, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of the District of Columbia. “A lot of guys can fake it, but having someone who can actually play it makes a difference.”
Turner, the saxophonist says, “never overplays, and he’s really tasty with the type of things that he hears and plays. Before I can suggest things for him, he already knows what to do.”
Broom—Sonny Rollins’s guitar player from 1981 to ’87 and again from 2005 to the present, as well as a prolific recording artist in his own right—was suggested to Carr by fellow saxophonist Tim Warfield after the guitarist originally scheduled for the session couldn’t make it. “It was a blessing that he was available,” Carr says of Broom. “He’s not only a great soloist, but he really knows how to assist. He was so conscientious about helping make the project the best that it could be.”
The saxophonist, who alternates between tenor and soprano, composed two of Straight Ahead Soul’s nine tracks. The title song does not employ a straight-ahead swing rhythm, but instead utilizes the type of chord changes associated with straight-ahead jazz played over a quasi-soul backbeat. “I wanted to have a looser type of sound to match the harmony of the tune, which is denser than a normal funk tune,” Carr explains. His other original number, “Side Yard Tracks,” brings to mind the sound of a passing cargo train. The rhythm alternates between a funky bounce and straight-ahead swing, and Carr plays the melody in the tenor’s altissimo range with Broom playing along in unison to produce an eerie, high-pitched blend.
Johnson also contributed two numbers. He wrote “Dreams of You,” on which Carr blows soprano and the rhythm section plays a loping groove reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s classic treatment of “Poinciana,” as a tribute to Calvin Jones, his late mentor at the University of the District of Columbia. Johnson’s beautiful “Healing Song” finds Carr blending his soprano sax with the wordless vocal tones of Lori Williams.
“Between Worlds,” written by bassist Bowie, alternates hip-hop and straight-ahead rhythm patterns. “We were calling the groove at the beginning ‘middle-aged hip-hop’ because it’s like middle-aged guys trying to play hip-hop,” Carr quips. The saxophonist had initially heard the Ivan Lins ballad “Love Wants to Dance” performed by a vocalist—he can’t remember which one—but after George Benson recorded it, Carr decided it was time to do it as a feature for his tenor.
The hard-charging “Scrappy” salutes its composer, the late Texas tenor great Don Wilkerson, who first recorded it for Blue Note in 1962. And the mid-tempo blues “Light and Lovely,” although written by Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and bassist George Duvivier, was chosen in honor of the late Houston tenor titan Arnett Cobb, who originally recorded it alongside Davis, Coleman Hawkins, and Buddy Tate during a 1959 tenor summit meeting for Prestige Records titled Very Saxy.
Straight Ahead Soul closes with a moving medley of the church songs “Blessed Assurance” and “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” performed by Carr on tenor and his niece Chelsey Green on viola and pianist Johnson in tribute to the saxophonist's late sister Harriett, to whom the entire CD is dedicated. This deeply moving performance is made even more profound by its conclusion, taken from a live recording of Carr and Green at Harriett’s 2008 funeral service at New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Houston.
Born in Houston on September 5, 1959, Paul Carr was exposed at an early age to the jazz and blues records in his mother’s large collection. Eddie Harris and Stanley Turrentine were among her favorite artists, and she decided that her only son would grow up to be a saxophonist. “I liked it even before I played it, because she liked it,” he says. He took up alto at age 11 and switched to tenor during his senior year at Kashmere High School because the school’s award-winning jazz band was in need of a lead tenor.
The band sometimes opened for onetime Lionel Hampton star soloist Arnett Cobb and also featured him as a special guest. Carr, who visited Cobb’s house on a number of occasions, remembers the time Yamaha gave the tenor man a new soprano sax. “He told me,” Carr recalls, “that if I showed him how to play the soprano, he would show me how to play the tenor, but he really didn’t need any help.”
Kashmere band director Conrad Johnson retired after Carr’s senior year and formed a professional big band. The young saxophonist became a member of the orchestra, which also included former Ray Charles sideman Don Wilkerson. “I was playing second alto, so I was sitting right next to Don Wilkerson,” says Carr, who also took a few lessons from the veteran musician.
After three years at Texas Southern University, where he played in the jazz band with future saxophone star Kirk Whalum, Carr moved to DC to attend Howard University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music performance.
Carr has been in the DC area ever since and currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, with Karmen, his wife of 26 years. He once considered moving to New York City in order to advance his career, but after talking to a number of internationally known New York–based jazzmen who complained of jobless lulls between tours, he realized he was working more around DC than he would have been had he gone on the road. Carr’s steadiest gig was the near-decade he spent leading the band three nights a week at Takoma Station in Washington, sometimes sharing bills with such out-of-towners as Art Blakey, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, and Joey DeFrancesco. Carr’s group included Terell Stafford for a period, until Bobby Watson passed through Takoma Station and took the young trumpeter with him.
While giving private lessons, Carr discovered that many of his young students were unable to get into jazz bands in area schools due to seniority systems much like the one in Houston that had prevented him from joining the band before his senior year. “If you’re the same age as a bunch of people who made the band,” he explains, “you could go through your whole high school years without playing in a jazz band.”
In order to give aspiring jazz musicians better opportunities to learn and perform together, Carr launched the Jazz Academy of Music, Inc., in Silver Spring in 2002. The nonprofit school offers year-round workshops and a summer camp where Carr and others professionals teach students between the ages of 12 and 19 the principles of improvisation and playing in small groups and big bands.
And in February 2010, the saxophonist became an event producer, reviving the indoor Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in Rockville, Maryland, which had been dormant since the death of its founder four years earlier. The three-day festival, which included master classes and student performances, also featured Marc Cary, Bobby Watson, and Carr leading a quintet that included Terell Stafford and Mulgrew Miller.
Carr, who has appeared as a sideman on CDs by flutist Kent Jordan, singers Sharon Clark and Janine Gilbert-Carter, and many others, has recorded four of his own: PC10 in 1993, Just Noodlin’ in 2006, Musically Yours: Remembering Joe Henderson in 2008, and now Straight Ahead Soul, on which he delves into his Texas past to chart new musical paths that are at once time-honored and daringly contemporary. •