Half a Million Smarter 

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If polls are any indication, Regina Carter is the most popular jazz violinist on the scene. The Detroit native's blend of bracing jazz improvisation and classically tinged, standard-heavy repertoire is an audience-charming combination. Her April 4 performance will be her third Modlin Center appearance, but it will be the first time she's come as a certified genius.

In 2006, Carter won a MacArthur Fellowship (popularly called the "genius grant"), which awards "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits" with an unrestricted stipend of $500,000.

"It was mind-blowing to say the least," Carter says. "It's not something you expect. You always think if you get a decent-sized chunk of change, you'd know what to do with it, but you don't. It doesn't come all at once; you get it in quarterly installments, which is a good thing."

The award comes at a transitional time for Carter. Her 2006 recording, "I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey" (Verve), a heartfelt tribute to her late mother, was her last for Verve; she's signed with a new label, Heads Up, but has yet to enter the studio.

"I'm starting to collect some music -- folk music from Senegal, Afro-Cuban stuff, just trying to figure out what to do next," she says. While Verve did much for her career, leaving behind the label's high-concept, marketing-driven approach was liberating, she says: "There is huge sense of freedom. I can let the music speak for itself."

And, she says, the rest of the money is going into the bank. Unlike fellow first-rank jazz violinist Mark Feldman, who invested a similar cash award in a spectacular new instrument, Carter is sticking with her longtime violin. "It's a copy of a Guarneri. I played it, it sounded good and it fit my pocketbook," Carter says. "I always thought I would someday buy one with a pedigree — I heard one in Norway and made an offer on it — but mine is special for me."

The responsive blue-collar instrument proved perfect for Carter's aggressively percussive yet lyrical style. On recordings, including her major label debut "Motor City Moments," she alloyed the swinging style of her elders with something harder — less Mozart, more Motown. "I respect my instrument," Carter says. "But I don't want something I have to tiptoe around, like those people who have fancy dishes that they never use."

Ironically, her growing fame led to an invitation to go to Genoa to play Paganini's violin. It was a perfect story: The gifted woman of color expresses herself on the legendary violin of the quintessential dead white male virtuoso. But if there ever was an instrument to tiptoe around, it is the "Canon," a world treasure that came with its own armed guards.

The resulting CD, "Paganini After a Dream" (Verve) was well-received, but its classical constraints muffled Carter's edgier charms. "I wish I had more time with it, because there are classical players who play it with all the passion the music requires," she says. "And they were so protective, I was extremely nervous." (Once, during a particularly impossible stretch of music, Carter shook her head in frustration and the guards leapt to their feet.)

"I'll Be Seeing You," despite a retro repertoire drawn from songs of the 1920s, is a return to form, rekindling the fire in Carter's playing. Much of what she plays in Richmond is likely to be drawn from the album, but Carter says most of the time she doesn't decide what to play until she arrives.

While she has been recognized as an innovator, Carter insists on the timeless importance of live performance. "There is so much entertainment available, on iPods, on cell phone," Carter says. "But it's not art that makes you feel. We are not connecting with each other as much as we used to." The concert, she promises, will be a two-way exchange. "Feed your soul, feed your spirit and feed us with your energy." S

Regina Carter plays the University of Richmond's Modlin Center Friday, April 4. at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8-$36. Call 289-8980 or visit http://modlin.richmond.edu.

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