Regina Carter: Dreaming of Paganini

With the slow, careful movement of a mother carrying her new born child, The Maker gestured to transfer the fragile item he held to its nervous recipient. Ms. Regina Carter, Grammy Nominated violinist and jazz artist from Detroit Michigan, reached to take the priceless apparatus from The Maker. Unsatisfied with Ms. Carter’s positioning, The Maker […]

With the slow, careful movement of a mother carrying her new born child, The Maker gestured to transfer the fragile item he held to its nervous recipient. Ms. Regina Carter, Grammy Nominated violinist and jazz artist from Detroit Michigan, reached to take the priceless apparatus from The Maker. Unsatisfied with Ms. Carter’s positioning, The Maker stopped and shook his finger in the way of a stern school master. After repositioning Regina’s hand under the weight of the treasure, the Makers confidence was renewed, and with that, Regina Carter became the first non-classical artist and first African-American to wield Nicolo Paganini’s violin. The tedious negations that took place prior to this moment and the historical triumphs that would follow, are exciting and inspiring.

In 2001 Regina Carter, who had collaborated with Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige, traveled to Genoa, Italy and made history by playing 18th Century violinist and virtuoso, Nicolo Paganini’s violin for a benefit concert. Less than a year later, Ms. Carter made history again by actually recording an album with the storied instrument. The album, Paganini: After a Dream, is a beautiful collection of classically infused selections, with arrangements that allow for Ms. Carters graceful improvisation. Nick named the “Cannon,” because of its naturally booming sound, Paganini’s violin is indeed a treasure, and in the hands of Regina Carter, the result is gold.

Shortly after being reunited with the “Canon,” in November 2003, this time on US soil for a concert at the Lincoln Center, Ms. Carter talked with Allhiphop Alternatives about her background as an artist and her adventure with Paganini’s “Canon.”

AllHipHop Alternatives: For those who aren’t familiar with you, could you give us a little bit about your background, ya know, when you started playing, where you’re from?

Regina: Well, I’m from Detroit, Michigan and I started playing violin when I was four years old and I started on piano when I was two. I grew up playing European classical music and went to Detroit public schools and was influenced…well I shouldn’t say influenced, but I was surrounded by Motown and a lot of the pop music of that time like Parliament and the Funkadelic and some other stuff.

AHHA: The violin is such a graceful instrument that when most people think about it they don’t think about jazz or funk. What made you lean towards jazz as opposed to classical?

Regina: I think I was attracted to the drums, the percussions and being able to have that involved in any music I was playing and then being able to improvise, all of that really attracted me to want to play jazz. And I say jazz, but I play all styles of music ya know, and I’m able to play with a lot of different people but I think the main ingredient or the main the main thing that attracted me was the improvisation, being able to have my own voice.

AHHA: Your latest project, Paganini: After A Dream, is amazing musically, but it’s also historic. Could you tell us how all of this developed and why it’s historic?

Regina: Well…it all started two years ago when a friend of mine named Andrea Liberovici was visiting New York and he was visiting another friend of mine named Vana Gierig who use to play piano with me. And he [Liberovici] was just listening to some orchestra tracks we had done and said it would be great if I could do this concert in Italy using this violin that belonged to Paganini, and Paganini was a great violinist and he music sense. But people had said that they felt Paganini had sold his soul to the devil and made a pact with him because he could play things on his instrument that to date no one can do. He would break all the strings, except for one on his violin and play a whole concerto on that one string.

AHHA: Wow.

Regina: Yeah, so people threatened to stone him. But when he passed his family still had his violin and this violin he had was a 250 year old violin, it was made by a great violin maker named Guarneri del Gesu. The reason Paganini has this violin is because he lost his violin in a gambling debt and Guarneri loaned him the violin and after hearing him play it, told him he could keep it. And that’s why Guarneri even has a name to date, because of Paganini. So they [the family] willed this violin to the city of Genoa, Italy and then the city said okay, the violin has to be played otherwise it is useless. So once a year they hold a competition called the Paganini’s Competition, and whatever classical violinist would win playing on of Paganini’s pieces, they would get to play the violin in concert, using it for about an half an hour to forty-five minutes. So no one outside of the classical idiom had ever touched the instrument, so when Andrea went to the community a lot of people were like no, she can’t play the violin, it’s gona debase the value of it if she plays jazz on it. So it was like a very derogatory way that they looked at the music, and my thing is if you think like that when you’re not only speaking about a music, you’re speaking about a culture that the music comes from. So we finally got through all of that, we convinced all the politicians and I played a concert there that was really successful and they donated the money to Doctors Without Borders and they dedicated that night to New York because is was right after 9-11. And then they allowed me to record this record using that violin, which was big feat for me cause I’m the first non-classical player to play it and the first African-American. So it’s a huge deal, it’s a huge personal deal.

AHHA: What’s so special about this violin?

Regina: Ya know I can tell you…but it was amazing when I played the concert here [New York City] at Lincoln Center, I had the concert Mistress of the Orchestra stand up and play a short piece, then I played the same thing she played [with Paganini’s violin] and as soon as I started to play the instrument the whole audience gasp, because the sound is so incredibly loud, and it wasn’t even mic-ed. It’s loud and it’s dark, it sounds more like a viola or even a cello sometimes, and that’s why they nicked named it the “Cannon.” And no one understands what the makers of that time periods secrets were, they went to their graves with them. They’ve tried all kinds of experiments and no one knows.

AHHA: I here the violin even had its own P. Diddy-like entourage?

Regina: Yeah (laughs), the first time in Italy I saw these cars coming, flashing lights, I assumed that, okay we’re in Italy, the Pope must be in town and they were like no, that’s the violin. They had all these armed guards, and the violin maker that travels with the violin came into the room were I was and snatched the curtains closed cause the sun was too bright, they turned down the heat and made sure that the moisture was right in the air and blah blah, so it was all really intimidating.

AHHA: Let’s jump into the details of the album…how did you select what songs you would play?

Regina: The community of Genoa kinda threw a wrench in the plans because they said that the music had to match the instrument, so that means European classical music and I don’t really play that music anymore on a level where I would want to play it. Then a bass player named John Clayton told me to check out music of the French Impressionist Period, because those musicians hung out a lot with jazz musicians and the artist weren’t so divided during that time period and they influenced each other. So it made it easier to arrange and record those tunes so they don’t sound corny, cause sometimes you can take a tune and if you try to force it to another genre I just doesn’t work. So I just listened to a bunch of tunes and I choose pieces that really touched me and that I would want to perform for the next year.

AHHA: Did you record the album in Italy?

Regina: That’s interesting cause I actually recorded the album here in New York with my violin because [at that time] they wouldn’t let the violin leave Genoa and I couldn’t afford to take my band to Italy. So I recorded everything here and I had to learn all the melodies and re-record everything using the “Canon” in Italy. And that whole process was crazy, ya know, over-dubbing, cause when you’re playing live you can respond to each other and people play certain things because somebody else did, so you’re having a conversation. But when you go into over-dub, you have to be aware that the band responded to something you did…it just doesn’t sound right…it made it really tricky for me.

AHHA: You said that the songs started out as classical pieces, but that you had to treat the music in your style and make them your own, what did you mean by that?

Regina: Well they’re classical pieces, so there’s a certain way that you approach the music and I tried to respect the pieces as they were and play the melodies down as they had been written. But then I would take the chord changes that are underneath those melodies and the arranger would embellish on those so that they were more jazz harmonies than classical harmonies and it gave us room to use the scales and stuff that we more so use to add more color. And then maybe when we all finished soloing, when it was time to play the melody again, I could treat it differently, instead of playing it straight like a classical player would, instead I could lean back on a note or play with the words if you will.

AHHA: So what’s next for you Ms. Carter?

Regina: A vacation (laughs). I’m gona continue to tour this record after December.

AHHA: Any last words Ms. Carter?

Regina: No, I just hope that if people don’t know my music, they’ll check it out.

For more information on Regina Carter