Southern Comfort, the whiskey-tinged liqueur, is described as being made from neutral spirits, but the spirits in “Southern Comfort,” the new CD from violinist Regina Carter, are anything but neutral.
The album was born as an exploration of her paternal ancestry with its roots in the Alabama coal mining region.
“I spent my summers pretty much in Alabama and it was a very different life than the one we’d grown up with living in Detroit,” says the musician, who appears in SFJAZZ concerts this week.
She speaks of rural outhouses, dirt roads and boiling bath water on the stove, along with the subtle shadings of a gentler, more intimate social structure.
“You actually went to visit people to make a connection. Music,” she recalls, “was just a part of everyday life.”
To get to the source of the sound in her memory, Carter listened to dozens of archival interviews from the late 1800s. “Some of the people were musicians and others would just speak about tunes that were current then and give a little history on the tune, if they were work tunes or everyday household tunes or a game.”
Most of the songs she selected have text, but Carter presents them as instrumentals. “I tend to always gravitate towards pieces that have lyrics — I think I’m a closet singer — but I have to use the violin so I don’t scare folks,“ she laughs.
With her source material whittled down to a manageable level, Carter began playing musical matchmaker with arrangers she knew. “I would send a couple of recordings and tell the arrangers, ‘See which tune strikes you. If none of them do, let me know and I’ll send you something else.’ I felt it was important for them to feel a connection to the piece as well.”
It was also important to Carter to respect the simplicity of the material. “They are already beautiful and I’m just interpreting these pieces with my life experiences and sharing these pieces with the audience. I like to play some of the field recordings during the live concerts so the audience has a perspective of where the tune comes from and what we’ve actually done.”
Carter’s connection to the Bay Area is long-standing and reaches beyond just performing. “San Francisco really is my second home. I’m working as an artistic director with the San Francisco Jazz Festival and the new hall there, which is amazing. They’re asking all of us as artistic directors for our vision on how to help cultivate a bigger audience and get more young people interested in this music.”
IF YOU GO
Where: SFJAZZ Center, 201 Franklin St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $25 to $55
Contact: (866) 920-5299, www.sfjazz.org