African-American jazz violinist Regina Carter remembers taking baths in a tin pail on the front porch of her grandmother’s home in Alabama, where she spent several childhood summers. Wanting to better understand her roots, she went digging in Ancestry.com and learned her paternal grandfather was a coal miner. That discovery inspired Carter to take up the family tradition in a new way: With her violin serving as pickax and shovel, she’s mined the music of her grandfather’s time to wonderful effect.
“I thought it would be interesting to record some of the music that would have been popular or happening during his lifetime, growing up in Alabama and the different places he lived and worked,” Carter told NPR. For research, she raided the field recordings of renowned ethnomusicologists Alan Lomax and John Wesley Work III, housed at the Library of Congress.
The precious metals and gems Carter excavated are assembled on her newest album, Southern Comfort, which begins appropriately enough with the traditional “Miner’s Child.” Carter digs into the minor motif with ease and grit which, together with plaintiff guitar picking, quickly conjures up a vista of hills dotted with worn-out workers. A few bars into the song, however, swirling cymbals and a driving bass make clear that this project is no museum-style reenactment of the past.
Make no mistake: Southern Comfort is a jazzalbum through and through, with robust improvisational sections and virtuosic musicianship that includes a compelling use of accordions. While traipsing through golden nuggets of Americana, the listener quickly and surprisingly stumbles into another world altogether—part African melodies, part American roots, part orchestral jazz. The music feels, in fact, like a far-ranging river, the headwaters of which are delta spirituals and blues, but which reinvents itself many times over on its way to the great wide, global sea. The San Francisco Jazz Festival aptly summarized that, “for Regina Carter, the violin isn’t merely an improvisational vehicle. It’s a passport to unexpected realms, a Rosetta stone that unlocks the door to a myriad of cultures and worlds.”
Carter mostly passes on the song lyrics, preferring to build connection via music. But there are a couple of delightful exceptions. On the funky spiritual “Trampin,” she includes what appears to be a snippet of the original field recording of an old man with a bullfrog voice singing that wherever he tramped in life he was always “trying to make Heaven my home.” Carter herself joins in on “I Moaned And I Moaned” whose chorus recounts, “I moaned till I found the Lord.”
Carter told NPR she was particularly impacted by the bittersweet spiritual, “I’m Going Home.” She was genuinely moved by “the whole story of being forgiven for your sins, making right with whoever you believe in because you’re going to make your transition home.” The musical journey was concurrent with Carter’s personal journey in a variety of ways. While learning more of her family’s past, she was awed by how hard everyone worked, especially her grandparents, who raised 14 children. But with all their troubles, “they were happy and they were hard workers. … I get strength from seeing my family and seeing these beautiful, strong people.”