Regina Carter has been a lot of places since we last heard from her on I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey, a standards album. That album was released in June; in September she won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (aka "the genius grant"). Nearly four years later, she returns with the startling Reverse Thread, a collection based mainly on African songs both modern and traditional, and field recordings with some modern material thrown in.
"Hiwumbe Awumba," the opener, is an Abayudaya piece; it is one of three tracks here based on field recordings from Ugandan Jews. While its melody remains intact, Xavier Davis' arrangement creates a contemporary reading utilizing guitar (Adam Rogers), violin, acoustic bass (Chris Lightcap), accordion (Will Holshouser), and drums (Alvester Garnett). "Full Time" is based on a celebratory folk song written by electric bassist Mamadou Ba that features Yacouba Sissoko on the kora; the interplay between Carter's violin and Sissoko's kora is lively and dance-like, and Ba's bassline walks the line between funk and reggae. "Un Aguinaldo Pa Regina" was composed by Latin jazz master Papo Vasquez and courses an easy line through lithe, balladic Afro-Cuban son, the tango, and a kiss of flamenco. Carter's only original composition is the gorgeous "Day Dreaming on the Niger," where her violin, Gary Versace's accordion, Ba's electric bass, and Garnett's drums move through an incantatory vamp and groove before she and Versace solo, complementing one another from opposite ends of the skeletal melody. Boubacar Traoré's "Kanou" creates a polyrhythmic base on hand and kit drums, and a melodic base for the interplay between Sissoko, Carter, and Holshouser. It is not only engaging, it is almost breathtaking. The set closes with another of Piece's tunes entitled "Mwana Talitambula," and arranged by Lightcap. Holshouser's accordion states a spare, haunting melody, responded to and elaborated upon by Carter, while the rhythms of the ensemble's dynamics build gradually before whispering to a close.
With its musical sophistication and willingness to explore harmonic and rhythmic invention, Reverse Thread embodies the spirit of jazz. It feels like each song was being discovered as it was being recorded, and the end result is an undefinable, uncategorizable beauty.