The Great Migration that saw some 6 million African-Americans leave the rural South for urban destinations in the North and West wasn't always a one-way journey.
Many of the black children brought up in cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles ended up spending vacations with family back in the South, which is how Regina Carter came by her recollections of warm and molasses-slow Alabama summers.
Born in Detroit in 1966, the celebrated jazz violinist had 13 aunts and uncles on her father's side of the family, and she got to know some of them and her grandmother on summer visits. Her new blues- and folk-steeped album "Southern Comfort" (Sony Masterworks) is a highly evocative musical journey into her Alabama roots, with several detours along the way.
"My father and his twin were the oldest, and he was the first who migrated north and ended up getting work at the Ford factory," says Carter, who performs Monday at Kuumbwa and opens a four-night run on May 1 at the SFJazz Center, where she's concluding a two-year tenure as a resident artist director.
"The next sibling came up and lived with my parents, and then the next one, but my grandmother stayed in Alabama. We'd go down over the summer for a few weeks, and it was very homey. As an adult looking back, I have memories of getting baths in a bucket out in front of the house and the outhouse out back."
"Southern Comfort" is Carter's latest musical investigation since she was awarded a lucrative MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship in 2006. She spent several years researching the music on her 2010 album "Reverse Thread" (E1 Entertainment) featuring jazz arrangements of music by contemporary African composers.
Her touring band features several players from her recent albums, including drummer Alvester Garnett and accordionist Will Holshouser, who describes how Carter brings a similar approach to interpreting a piece whether it's by Mali's Habib Koité or Graham Parsons' "Hickory Wind," one of the songs on "Southern Comfort."
"I like her approach, leaving freedom to interpret for ourselves and not insisting on replicating authentic arrangements," Holshouser says. "Regina has a very motivic way of improvising, very idea-oriented. Sometimes she talks about thinking about words and language as you improvise."
The band also features two recent additions to her fold. Brazilian Girls bassist Jesse Murphy is usually associated with groovecentic ensembles like guitarist John Scofield's Uberjam, but "he's a Michigander, and he can play anything," Carter says. "He's playing stand-up, and he's killing."
The band's latest addition is Marvin Sewell, a brilliant but under-the-radar guitarist whose bone-deep feel for the blues brought him into the orbit of Cassandra Wilson after the release of her hit 1995 album "New Moon Daughter" (Blue Note).
"Marvin's just incredible," Carter says. "He's this quiet guy, and when he picks up that guitar it's another thing. He's like a walking musical dictionary, and has so much information. When I called to ask him about this project he said 'my people are from Alabama, too.'"
As on "Reverse Thread," the new album provided a welcome opportunity for Carter to immerse herself in an expansive body of music, though instead of turning to living composers she plunged headlong into the pre-World War II field recordings of Alan Lomax and John Work III.
As part of "Southern Comfort" performances, she often plays several archival pieces to offer a point of reference, like a Lomax recording of girls in Alabama captured in an intricate game of pat-a-cake in "See See Rider" (not to be confused with the classic blues song of the same name), which guitarist Adam Rogers arranged for the album. Vibraphonist Stefon Harris arranged a haunting medley drawn from a Lomax recording of Vera Ward singing "Death Have Mercy" and a recording of a banjo player named Sidney Stripling playing and singing "Breakaway."
"The important thing was to maintain the beauty of the source, and to try not to get in the way of it," Carter says.
For Carter, who focused single-mindedly on music throughout her school years and detested history, "Southern Comfort" provided an avenue for connecting with her past. It's one thing to read about the optimistic experience of Reconstruction and the horrific advent of legal segregation, and it's another thing entirely to hear the wisdom, resilience and spiritual fortitude of your ancestors directly from the source.
"Our history is so ugly, but out of it came some beautiful music," Carter says. "We have to acknowledge it and keep moving and make sure we don't repeat it."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at email@example.com.