‘Game On’: Kenyon Carter recovers from car crash with jazz trinity
Kenyon Carter

In the press for Kenyon Carter’s third album, much is made of a car accident that nearly severed the smooth jazz saxophonist’s career. Game On (CurvePoint Media) is perhaps the best reflection of the appreciation of a musician who found his second wind and his second chance: The original music on all 10 tracks exudes gratitude and the simple joy of playing from the heart with a renewed sense of purpose.

Scheduled for an August 14, 2015 release, two lead singles are already hitting big with listeners: “Jammin’ On Juniper,” and the title track featuring guitarist Chuck Loeb. Carter advanced “Jammin’ On Juniper” before the album was even finished. “Jammin’” received plenty of radio play too, and became one of the most listened-to singles on the Billboards the first week out.

Just as with “Jammin’,” the radio version of “Game On” with Loeb rocks from the start to the finish. Carter spins fashionable, infectious melodic sax notes up and down the square like an exuberant DJ at a late-night dance party. Loeb maxes out his gift for scintillating, vintage gab; both these funkmeisters lay out the grooves.

A producer and composer on this third album, Carter hopes to offer listeners another snapshot of where he’s at. His previous two albums also charted well, while displaying the saxophonist’s range and depth of imagination. The contemporary jazz album of Right By My Side — inspired by Carter’s love for his wife — came out in 2011 to critical and popular favor, with three songs charting well. Last year, Carter achieved favor with the masses again with another look at jazz through a gospel filter in Songs For My Father. Released on August 26, 2014, Carter’s deft, gracious hand filled up all the stop-gaps of familiar but originally quite formal gospel hymns such as “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Blessed Assurance,” “Amazing Grace,” and “How Great Thou Art.”

Music played by someone literally touched by “Amazing Grace” sounds truer, deeper, lovelier than someone who will never know such affliction. Chicago tenor Frank Catalano — enjoying his own corner of fame with the release of the John Coltrane-inspired Love Supreme Collective and God’s Gonna Cut You Down — also experienced a brush with mortality in a car accident that shredded his left shoulder and left wrist.

Like Catalano, Carter worried he would lose the ability to play the music that gave him such freedom as he did the heavy lifting of rehab. For Carter, who can play tenor, baritone, and soprano, the car crash damaged the radial nerve in his arm. Doctors weren’t sure the musician would ever regain full use of his arm. For eight months, Carter wore a specially-designed therapy glove in an effort to play saxophone from scratch, from the bottom up. He also gave lessons while recuperating, praying he would one day be able to play the way he used to.

These three albums, especially his latest, give a good indication that Kenyon Carter can play again — with a deeper love for the jazz that he almost lost.

“I once heard someone talk about their recording projects as ‘snapshots’ in time,” Carter explained in a Great Scott press release. “My first album was written as I was falling in love with my wife and the second was a tribute to my late father. ‘Game On’ is the next snapshot in my life, a decision to really go for it musically and hold nothing back. While my injury definitely changed the course of my life, it didn’t define me or hold me back. It was unbelievably scary to think that I would never play saxophone again, but I know I was given a second shot at life and I’m grateful to have gained the clarity to pursue what I really want in life — both personally and professionally. ‘Game On’ is an honest musical snapshot that combines my love for pop, R&B, funk, etc. with my favorite elements of the straight-ahead jazz tradition and I’m very proud of it. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to write and play this music and to record it with the world-class musicians who helped make this project come alive.”

Carter should feel very proud. The songs on this upcoming album show a recovery in progress, and the newfound discoveries within. He makes a strong statement on every last one of these songs, leaving nothing to chance. There’s nothing tentative in his approach. “Lights Down Low” is four minutes and 29 seconds of endless groove, as Carter sinks into the bones of the rich, milky melodic splendor, working well off the nuggets of snap, crackle, and pop from his fellow musicians, especially keyboardist Tyrone Jackson.

The scary spacious narrative of “Here We Go” is met with confident cool by Carter. He tone-on-tones a melody so elusive, yet so haunting, chasing the climactic elements home the entire time — as if still composing in the middle of an improvisational spell. When guitarist Billy Wilkie takes that elusive, haunting melody and scorches meat on every surface, it’s a triumphant, compositional moment for the artist who carves out his very own signature.

“Going Home” is Carter’s answer to those eight months of struggle, doubt, fear, and hope. He lays his heart out on the line in an instantly captivating, yet familiar melody of the first rays of hope as he first felt himself play again. The melody also seems to capture the kind souls who went out of their way to help him see this journey through. If the Atlanta-based artist needs a third lead single, let this be the next one out. It’s his unique calling card: melodic, emotional jazz.

Kenyon Carter’s zest for life is apparent with every sinewy, shadowy, and sensual peek into Game On. He has several musicians to thank for joining him in this triumphant outing: guitarist Chuck Loeb, guitarist Billy Wilkie, bassist Tim Aucoin, drummer John David, keyboardist Tyrone Jackson, trumpeter Brent Whiten, and trombonist Richard Sherrington.

Carter plans to celebrate his new album with several Atlanta shows, August 15, 8 p.m., at Marietta Jazz & Jokes, and August 22, 7:30 p.m., and 9:30 p.m., Alpharetta’s Velvet Note. He’s also on HTR Radio the weekend of August 15-16 to promote Game On.