Reedist James Carter may turn out to be jazz’s biggest disappointment of the decade. When he debuted in 1993 with the impressive JC on the Set (DIW/Columbia), his boundless energy, dizzying technique, breathtaking range, historical knowledge, and the sheer palpable joy he took in playing connected with serious and casual jazz fans alike. Unfortunately this enormous sales potential caused Atlantic Records, which signed him and released a follow-up, The Real Quietstorm, in 1995, to oversalivate, and in their attempts to make a star of the Detroit native they’ve consistently damped his development. As is the style at most major-label jazz departments, his producer, Yves Beauvais, is in charge, and he favors conceptual elan over musical substance. A steady working band is the heart of good bop-inspired music, but Carter’s recordings for Atlantic, like most of the new stuff coming out on Impulse! and Verve, collect a different cast of musicians on almost every track; while good musicians have no problem pulling this off, the recordings never approach the level of inspiration a regular group can achieve. Carter’s last album, Conversin’ With the Elders, paired him with giants like Harry “Sweets” Edison, Lester Bowie, and Buddy Tate, which made for good copy but not very exciting music. On his latest, In Carterian Fashion, he goes head-to-head with Cyrus Chestnut, Henry Butler, and his own longtime keyboardist Craig Taborn, all on the Hammond B-3 organ; while it’s much better than Elders, it’s still a producer’s concept. But when Carter plays live, out from under Beauvais’ thumb, he’s hot shit. His extreme harmonic tricks and command of blues-based material let him connect the dots between free-jazz screaming and the R & B bar-walking tradition, though sometimes he’ll cross the line into grandstanding, sacrificing cohesive solos just to show off his range. He’ll be making his Chicago debut with his new group–alto saxophonist Cassius Richmond, pianist Roger Harris, bassist John Whitfield, and drummer Leon Joyce. It’s a step, but the setting may not encourage their best work: they perform at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s monthly “First Fridays” meat market; also slated is a Nautica fashion show cosponsored by GQ. In short, a major crapshoot, but one that just might pay off big. Friday, 6 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago; 312-280-2660. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Norman Jean Roy.