The First Lady of Jazz, Queen of Motor City, and now MacArthur Fellow (“genius grant”), Regina Carter  returned to NC State University as part of the Eastern U.S. leg of a world-wide tour featuring music from her new album, Southern Comfort. Referring to her band members as family, she introduced Marvin Sewell, guitar, Will Holshouser, accordion, Jesse Murphy, bass, and Alvester Garnett, drums. They will perform two more concerts in the Titmus Theater on Saturday night, March 21.

With a couple of exceptions, (“New for New Orleans” and a composition from her previous CD, Reverse Thread). most of the music on this program was drawn from her recent project. Carter’s primary source materials for the music were field recordings from the Alan Lomax and John Wesley Work III collections at the Library of Congress. But the seeds for this artistic endeavor were sown during Carter’s own childhood and based on memories from her family’s summer trips to Alabama where music-making and story-telling were as natural as drinking lemonade.

The story began with the life and times of Regina Carter’s paternal grandfather, Dan John Carter. Like so many of those who toiled in the fields and mines of the deep south, music was the balm that soothed and comforted. Work songs, fiddle tunes, and hymns offered solace and hope.

A century later, the same melodies have the power to transport 21st-century listeners. Opening the concert, Marvin Sewell cast a spell on me as he played the introductory chords to “Miner’s Child.” This is the first track of the album and Sewell’s arrangement.  

“Mixing it up a bit,” they played Chris Lightcap’s wonderful jazz arrangement of  Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin.” The call and response, trading fours, and solos allowed the light to shine on everybody. Will Holshouser’s solo on “Shoo Rye” (arranged by Laurence Hobgood) was exceptional. I’ll go out on a limb here to say that he’s one of the best accordion players onstage today. And noted for her quotations, Carter began her solo with the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts.” The communication among and between performers and audience was palpable. One could almost feel the ensemble as they found their groove. This is the magic of a live performance.

There were more enchanting moments than I can count. I loved the steel guitar playing by Sewell on “Hickory Wind” and Will Holshouser’s accordion solo on their new post-Katrina song. Alvester Garnett projects such joy when he plays! Even when he accidentally tossed a stick across his drum set he kept his cool. And when it comes to fiddle playing, Carter has the ability to make a melody sing. “Hickory Wind” is one that really sticks. Bending notes and controlling her vibrato, she kept a slow tempo throughout – like sweet molasses. It goes without question that her improvisations are top notch.

All told, Regina Carter’s family project holds the universality that touches all of us. The girls’ chant on “See See Rider” reminded me of the playground games at the elementary school in my home town. I left with a smile to my face. 

Ms. Carter’s residency includes a workshop with aspiring young string students from KidzNotes, an El Sistema program in the Triangle, and two more concerts on Saturday, March 21. The Saturday concerts will be preceded by conversations with Gabriel Pelli. For details, see the sidebar.