Thinking of gifts for my mother used to almost drive me crazy. When holidays and her birthday rolled around, I'd rush through the mall at the last minute, trying to find something. No fancy perfumes; they make her sneeze. No decorative knickknacks; she has a house full. She's very particular about her clothes. And because I'm clueless about her size (something she's not sharing with me, anyway), I don't even bother looking for an outfit.
But then a few years ago, I thought to give her music. I know the kind she loves -- soul from the '60s and '70s, the era when she had "a Coke bottle figure and was fine as can be," she often says. Over the years, I've increased her collection with hard-to-find albums by Gladys Knight, the Dramatics, the Temptations and compilations of her favorite soul classics. (Mama refuses to get an iPod, preferring to accumulate CDs.) Other than money tucked in sentimental Hallmark cards, Mama loves receiving gifts of music.
Grace Louise Carter, a retired kindergarten teacher and mother of acclaimed jazz violinist Regina Carter, was also a lover of music. When she died in 2005, her grief-stricken daughter decided to honor her with a gift: an intimate collection of songs titled I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey.
But it wasn't easy returning to the studio. After her mother died, the artist, who plays Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Sunday, had considered giving up music altogether.
"I was really detached from everything after she passed," Carter says. "I thought if I did another record, it would be the songs she liked. I wanted to honor her in that way."
Released last year, I'll Be Seeing You concentrates on standards spanning the 1920s to the 1940s, music that Carter's mother enjoyed in her youth. Artfully and imaginatively arranged, the CD, Carter's sixth, is enlivened by the Detroit native's whimsical style. Chestnuts such as "Little Brown Jug" and "Blue Rose" are beautifully burnished by Carter's rich tone and sophisticated technique. Guests on the album include dynamic jazz vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater ("Bei Mir Bist Du Schon" and "This Can't Be Love") and Carla Cook ("You Took Advantage of Me," "St. Louis Blues" and "There's a Small Hotel").
"Carla is an old pal of mine," says Carter, who last week was at home in New Jersey. "She introduced me to jazz. She was like my mother's second daughter."
While growing up in Motor City, Carter and her two brothers were involved in arts and music early on. The musician says it was her mother's way of keeping the three off the streets and out of trouble.
"She thought it was important to enrich our lives," Carter says. "Playing a musical instrument helps you become disciplined. We weren't the kind of family that started something and didn't finish it. Whether it was piano, violin, dance lessons, we had to see it through at least a semester or a year."
Carter's immersion in music began at age 2 with piano lessons. Two years later, she was playing violin, learning the instrument through the Suzuki method. In her teens, she considered a career as a classical violinist with hopes of becoming a soloist with a major symphony. But Detroit's music scene at the time -- rich with the sounds of Motown, jazz, funk and Latin music -- broadened her musical scope.
After graduating from Michigan's Oakland University, Carter set out for New York.
"It was a challenge," Carter says of the period in the late '80s to early '90s. "But I was fortunate to come along when there was more work and not so much divisiveness. I did all kinds of gigs to pay the rent, outside of jazz: funk, pop, classical. It didn't matter."
Carter's versatility has always been apparent in her music. Beginning with her 1995 self-titled debut, the artist has explored various styles on her albums, from European classical music to Marvin Gaye. As for her next project, Carter is open to suggestions.
"What I'm going to do next is the $50 million question," she says with a laugh. "I'm not one of those people who have all these ideas. Sometimes I'm like, 'OK Lord, you can send one through the window.'"
I'll Be Seeing You and 1997's Something for Grace, an earlier tribute her mother was able to hear, are among Carter's most inspired efforts.
"I usually don't go back and listen to my records. I can't stand it. I'm too attached," she says. "But I'm glad I was able to do those two albums. With one, I honored my mother while she was here. ... And with the other, I honored her spirit. She's still with me."
See the Regina Carter Quintet at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St., Annapolis, at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35. For more information, go to ramsheadtavern.com or call 410-268-4545.