James Carter initially impressed with his prodigious technique on a variety of reed instruments, but in the nearly 20 years from his debut until the time of this recording, his reputation has been enhanced by the way he’s challenged those chops with an intrepid, masterful breadth of styles. Caribbean Rhapsody belongs in the pantheon of his best-realized experiments, a collaboration with the modern Puerto Rican classical composer Roberto Sierra that breaks out of pigeonholes such as “Third Stream” or “Latin Jazz,” to become by turns a resplendent saxophone concerto, a jousting chamber jazz tilt-a-whirl, and two sizzling cadenzas for solo horn.
Sierra, perhaps best known for the choral symphonic piece, “Missa Latina,” is featured on two extensive compositions. “Concerto For Saxophone and Orchestra,” which comprises the first three tracks, was commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra especially for Carter and received its world premiere in 2002. Performing it here with Sinfonia Varsonia under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero, Carter seizes the opportunity to be first among equals, his soprano sax leading a phalanx of flutes through the aptly-titled “Tenderly,” a movement influenced by the late Romantic period and given just the right tincture of dissonance. The succeeding movement, “3-4 Playful — Fast” is more robust and caught up in what sounds like East European folk music (Sierra is a disciple of Gyorgy Ligeti), with the orchestra loyally drifting in the wake of Carter’s agile, swaggering tenor.
The second major Sierra composition is the title piece, a string-supported fantasia that mixes the folk musics of Latin America and Eastern Europe. Undergirded by the Akua Dixon String Quintet, Carter and his cousin, the superb jazz violinist Regina Carter, cavort and parry with each other in variegated tempos that create a swirling canter, James Carter moving from tenor to soprano and back again while engaging Regina in a playful bolero, a hopscotch game of counterpoint, and a moving travelogue of Sierra’s musical impressions of growing up in Puerto Rico.
On either side of this “Caribbean Rhapsody,” Carter cuts loose with lengthy solo works, “Tenor Interlude” and “Soprano Epilogue.” Both mix composition and improvisation, aggression and circumspection, the blues and Tin Pan Alley. If there isn’t enough straight ahead jazz in the orchestra pieces (and there should be), you’ll find it here. Caribbean Rhapsody is a near-certain Grammy nominee that will find its way on to many best-of year-end lists — including mine.