After Jean-Luc Ponty and Stephane Grappelli, most casual fans would be hard-pressed to name even a third jazz violinist. So in a field that seems to have only a few active legends, and even fewer upstarts, it's easy to stand out. A nose-ring-sporting African-American (by the way, whatever happened to '80s flash-in-the-pan Sonya Robinson?), Regina Carter was bound to command attention. It's safe to say, however, that no one expected her to become as hip as she has, as fast as she has.

The classically trained Detroit native first hit the jazz scene in 1987 as a member of the touted all-female ensemble Straight Ahead. Leaving in 1994, she moved to the Big Apple and carved out her niche working with the Uptown String Quartet, the String Trio of New York, Oliver Lake, Max Roach, Cassandra Wilson and Wynton Marsalis. Carter then released two solo albums in the mid-'90s that mixed straight-ahead jazz with poplike R&B, but she gained more attention for her breathtaking playing on Marsalis's Pulitzer-winning Blood on the Fields.

When Carter hooked up with Verve in 1999 for her third album, Rhythms of the Heart, she was afforded a promotional blitz usually reserved for established heavyweights. The push paid off: Carter almost instantly became the young jazz violinist, a darling of the critics with an album that ended up on several best-of lists. By jazz standards too, Rhythms sold well. Last year's follow-up, Motor City Moments, is a tribute to the music Carter heard growing up, a salute to her beleaguered hometown. The session features compositions by Detroit legends Milt Jackson and Thad Jones as well as those made famous by Motown faves Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Carter swings hard on the album, plays the blues with conviction, the ballads with tenderness and jazzes up the R&B classics. Like its predecessor, Motor City sold well, and it helped Carter take home Jazz Musician of the Year honors from The Gavin Report.

Perhaps the critics who boldly proclaimed Carter to be the most significant jazz violinist since Ponty ultimately will be proved true. But even if she falls short of that lofty plateau, she is already a player inclined to take risks and move in different directions. For that alone, she's worth hearing.

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Paul J. MacArthur