Driving through her cultural and familial histories in her past few albums, Regina Carter has lost some of the formality that marred her earliest recorded work. That’s a big plus. A devastating instrumentalist from the get-go, the Detroit native turned lots of heads during the last 15 years. But her initial albums were occasionally stiff, not as playful as the otherwise enticing music demanded. I first noticed the change during a buoyant romp through “Little Brown Jug” on a disc dedicated to her mom. With 2010’s Reverse Thread and its examination of African folk music, everything definitely felt more relaxed. Southern Comfort, an insightful, blues-based disc that makes room for everything from hymns to hoe-downs, takes it a step further – seriously inviting stuff.
Carter makes frolic central to the cause. The difference between fiddle and violin can be debated for days, but it’s the former vibe that sets the esthetic coordinates for this program. There’s an easy rapport between the leader and her bandmates, and the choice of instruments, from Will Holshouser’s percolating accordion to Marvin Sewell’s funky guitar – brings a variety of colors to the party. Like a jazz version of Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Genuine Negro Jig, the 11 tunes swoop from Appalachian hollers to Louisiana swamps, and the nuances of each region are filtered through a collective mentality that knows plenty about modern improv. “Miner’s Child” is a bittersweet lament with traces of mbube uplift. “Shoo-Rye” is children’s song that prances until it’s time to go home.
Bassist Chris Lightcap turned Carter onto Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” and the modern country nugget sits nicely in the middle of Cajun echoes and church. The long tones that the leader uses to reach its essence are irresistible. Because this is a connect-the-dots kind of album, the romp through Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’” makes sense too. You can almost picture Carter’s grandfather, an Alabama coal miner whose life spurred this project, carousing with his pals after work. Ultimately that’s what makes Southern Comfort resonate. It may have a languid moment or two, but whether Carter is swaying at a barn dance or weeping at a gravestone, it’s all wonderfully vivid.