Regina Carter digs at the deep roots of her family tree

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You can trace Regina Carter’s DNA in her music—and for once we’re not talking in metaphorical terms. For the past decade she’s been exploring her heritage through sound and science, in the process assembling one of the most intriguing discographies of any contemporary jazz artist.

As the 47-year-old violinist tells it, that quest began when her mother—the Carter family’s resident archivist and storyteller—died. As part of her mourning, Carter decided to record a selection of Mom’s favourite tunes—Great American Songbook classics like Ella Fitzgerald’s 1938 hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and Glenn Miller’s “Little Brown Jug”—which became her 2006 release I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey.

Then things got deep.

Wanting to know more about her heritage, Carter joined the genealogy website Ancestry.com and paid for a DNA test that confirmed some of her long-held suspicions while offering a few surprises, too.

“I’m 73 percent West African, 13 percent Finnish, and the rest is from other European areas,” she explains, on the line from the Maywood, New Jersey, home she shares with her drummer husband, Alvester Garnett. “Eastern European areas; it doesn’t say specifically where.”

Carter explored her West African heritage on 2010’s remarkable Reverse Thread, which found the violinist collaborating with Malian griot and kora player Yacouba Sissoko, and now she’s brought her research closer to home with the equally inspired Southern Comfort, based on field recordings of folk music from the coal-mining communities of the Appalachians.

This time around, the family connection is obvious—Carter’s paternal grandfather was an Alabama miner—but the musical threads take a little teasing out. The opening track, “Miner’s Child”, for instance, is a tune that will be familiar to any bluegrass fan, but Carter sets it to a loping desert-blues beat, and Marvin Sewell’s guitar sounds curiously like a West African hunter’s harp called the ngoni.

“When you think about the guitar and the banjo and the ngoni, you think about all the similarities and how one has influenced the other,” Carter says. “So that wasn’t intentional, but, yeah, there are similarities. Listening to the musicians and doing the research, not only for Reverse Thread but also Southern Comfort, you hear how we’re all connected.”

Asked what she’s discovered about herself through her genealogical sleuthing, Carter has a simple answer: strength.

“It’s not necessarily ‘Aha! That’s why I like to do this,’ or ‘This is why I feel this way,’ ” she explains. “What it’s really given me is more of a sense of pride and purpose—and the knowledge that I shouldn’t take what I have for granted. Some of these people went through some ugly things in order for me to have what I have.”

As for where she’ll go in future, Carter admits that however much she’s enjoyed making her three concept albums, she still gets the urge to stretch out in a more conventional jazz setting. Then she thinks back to a recent New York City gig, and reconsiders.

“I played Birdland a couple of weeks ago, and there were some visiting Europeans in town,” she notes. “A lot were from Finland, and they said, ‘Well, maybe you’ll trace your roots and come over to find your Finnish family.’ So who knows?”

Regina Carter brings Southern Comfort to the BlueShore Financial Centre on Wednesday (April 23).

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