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Regina Carter's Encounter with a 'Cannon'

Paganini: After a Dream, by Regina Carter
Paganini: After a Dream, by Regina Carter

For Regina Carter, it was the chance of a lifetime. Carter, a classically trained jazz violinist, is one of the few people in the world who have been allowed to play a closely guarded violin handcrafted in Italy more than 260 years ago. "The Cannon" — so called because of its huge, sonorous sound — was the beloved instrument of violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini.

Carter has been allowed to play the instrument on two occasions. In a show of solidarity after the Sept. 11 attacks, Genoa — the Italian city to whom Paganini willed the Cannon — invited her to play it in concert in December 2001. She also used it to record her new CD, Paganini: After a Dream.

Since Paganini's death in 1840, the Cannon "has been kept in a vault, and jealously guarded by the musical elite of Genoa, rarely played and always by classical musicians," NPR's Renee Montagne reports on Morning Edition. So Carter was rightly nervous when the instrument was unveiled before her.

"It was pretty scary," she says. "I got to the city hall where they were keeping the violin and they put me in this small room and I'm waiting. Then they brought it in and it was very dramatic. They came into the room and snatched the red velvet curtains closed because the sun was too bright. They checked the heaters, they brought in a table and put a cloth on it. It was the wrong kind of table, so they changed the table and laid the velvet cloth out and opened it."

"Oh, my God," Carter thought, "what's going to come out of this case?" Finally, she got to play the historic violin. The concert was such a hit, Carter received both a standing ovation and an invitation to record on the Cannon. Her jazz group recorded songs for the CD in a New York studio. Carter then returned to Genoa to record songs on the Cannon and the results were mixed with the New York sessions.

Some purists believe that "jazz is a lesser music than European classical music," Carter notes. "Jazz is a music that's improvised, but when you look back at Paganini's history and the era that he came out of, he was a baroque musician and baroque musicians improvised."

Carter says an example of that improvisation comes in her rendition of Maurice Ravel's "Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte (Dance for a Dead Princess)" on the new CD. "Right here, we're starting to improvise," she tells Montagne, pointing to a transitional passage. "We've changed the harmonies right here."

On the CD, Carter also introduced Paganini's violin to film music — the theme from the film Black Orpheus and Ennio Morricone's Cinema Paradiso are both on the album. There's also a tango, Astor Piazzolla's "Oblivion".

Carter said she wanted to include elements of the variety of music she grew up with in Detroit, which meant not only classical music but also Latin and Motown.

Carter won't soon forget her moment on stage in Genoa. But there was a bit of a letdown when she had to relinquish Paganini's instrument. "They gave me my violin back to do one more tune and when I went to play it, it sounded like a mouse. It freaked me out because the sound was so small in comparison and so quiet. It was then difficult to play my own instrument... I had to make friends with my violin again."

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