Regina Carter loves taking risks with her music. “I try to pull the rug from under my own feet,” she says. “I always try to push myself.” The classically trained violinist started her career playing in jazz combos. By the time she went solo her music reflected a variety of influences, from African and Brazilian to R&B and swing. Carter took another leap with her latest CD, Paganini: After a Dream. She played all the songs on a 250-year-old violin once owned by the legendary composer and violinist Nicolò Paganini.
Carter first performed on the violin, nicknamed Il Cannone (“The Cannon” in Italian) for its thunderous sound, at a benefit concert in Genoa, Italy, in December 2001, becoming the first jazz musician and the first African-American to play the instrument. The idea of a jazz musician playing Paganini’s revered violin didn’t sit well with Genoa residents at first. The instrument, owned by the city of Genoa and insured for $40 million, is stored in a vault and is brought out only once a year to be played by the winner of the Premio Paganini, an international contest for college students and guest soloists. “A lot of people were afraid that playing jazz on such a historic instrument would debase the value of it,” Carter says. “But what people forget is that jazz is about improvisation, and Paganini was an extraordinary improviser and innovator. If he knew what I was doing, he would say, ‘It’s about time.’ ”