Digging into one's family history, violinist Regina Carter said, is not only worthwhile for musicians and artists. It's something everyone should do.
Carter, a prolific and well-known jazz violinist and a MacArthur Fellowship winner, devoted two previous albums to exploring her past: "I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey," a collection of her mother's favorite early standards, released in 2006, and "Reverse Thread," a trip through African musical styles that came out in 2010. "Southern Comfort," her latest album and Sony Masterworks debut, released earlier this year, delves into music her paternal grandfather, an Alabama coal miner, might have known.
The need to release new records, however, isn't what inspired the research.
"My goal was not even to record an album," Carter said. "I'd always been curious since childhood about my past."
After studying her mother's side, and before the recording of "I'll Be Seeing You," Carter joined ancestry.com and did a genealogy test "for personal reasons." She worked with UNC Chapel Hill professor and folklorist William Ferris and enlisted a young woman to sift through Appalachian folk songs at the Library of Congress. "I gave her an idea of what I was looking for, and she came up with reading material, interviews that we were able to buy, field recordings," Carter said. "In the beginning it wasn't to put this record together. It was just for my satisfaction."
Pulling together bits and pieces of data, Carter gradually got a sense of what life was like for her grandfather, who was born in Georgia in 1893 and later moved to Alabama. Parts of the story were harder to fill in. "Unfortunately, a lot of African-Americans [in her extended family] had to go through some stuff that was so ugly that they didn't want to talk about it," Carter said. "In some cases they burned information. There were so many roadblocks."
What emerged: more than 50 tunes — mostly single-line melodies captured as field recordings — that Carter whittled down to a manageable number. She then worked with three arrangers — Stefon Harris, Xavier Davis and Nate Smith — who were familiar with Carter's regular core of musicians: guitarists Adam Rogers and Marvin Sewell, bassists Chris Lightcap and Jesse Murphy, accordion player Will Holshouser and drummer/arranger Alvester Garnett.
"All of the arrangers knew me personally, and that was important," Carter said. "It was important that the arrangements were specific to us and not stock arrangements… I just basically told them not to lose the beauty and the rawness of those single lines, really not to overdo them… I really wanted the original melodies to be there."
With the arrangements completed, Carter and her band rehearsed for several months. Songs grew and evolved; even now, as the band tours behind the album, they shape-shift night to night. There's herky-jerky odd-meter stuff all over the album. "Honky Tonkin'," a funk workout, crams groups of threes and fours together, before Carter trades fours with the guitar and accordion. "Blues de Basile," an accordion-heavy two-step in New Orleans-style, alternates between groups of six and four. Some of the metric hiccups, Carter said, are baked into the source material. "It's especially true when [the original recording] is a single voice singing," she said. "This is somebody's grandmother. It's there, and it's on us to try to get that feel and not try to box it into some bar line."
The arrangements on "Southern Comfort" are as varied as the source material. "Shoo-Rye," one of the jazzier arrangements, is nearly a fugue, with imitative counterpoint between the violin and accordion, while "Trampin'" sounds remarkably like a Fela Kuti groove. "I'm Going Home," a haunting seven-minute ballad where Carter's violin doesn't enter for nearly two minutes, is the album's emotional centerpiece. Carter also included a cover of "Hickory Wind," a song written by country rocker Gram Parsons that appeared on the Byrds' 1968 album, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo."
"With each project, when I'm talking to the band about what I want to do, some guys will say, 'Check this song out,'" Carter said. "I'm always open to that."
With the completion of "Southern Comfort," the violinist now has a triptych of albums about her past, but there's much left to explore; a genealogy test confirmed she has Finnish ancestors, and she might venture down that road. Does Carter feel in any way that one particular leg of the journey is now complete?
"I don't know, because I didn't plan on this one," Carter said. "Whenever I make a plan, it ends up being something else. There's incredible music all over the planet. When I hear something that strikes a chord, I follow that… When I find something beautiful, a gem, I want to share it with others."
REGINA CARTER performs on Tuesday, June 17 at Morse Recital Hall in New Haven as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $35-$55. Information: artidea.org.