Kent Carter and the Continental Continuum
Best known for his work as principal bassist in the ensembles of Steve Lacy between 1965 and 1982, Kent Carter has worked squarely within the annals of the 'new thing' almost since its inception. However, most of his career has been as an expatriate - and it is something rare to have a foothold in both European improvised music and the revolutionary New York New Thing. Carter is deeply involved in the possibility for not only the bass, but string writing and improvising in general, something which he has expanded upon in his string trios and the occasional solo project. Here is his story.
All About Jazz: I've seen your birthdate as both June 12, 1939 and 1932. Which is correct?
Kent Carter: It's '39; I just turned 65.
AAJ: Happy birthday... you were born in New Hampshire, right?
KC: Yes, that's because it was the nearest hospital, but we lived in Vermont.
AAJ: And your family was somewhat musical; your father was a conductor, right?
KC: He was the conductor of the Vermont State Symphony Orchestra. Actually, he built the orchestra; it was one of the first state orchestras.
AAJ: How did your path as a musician form?
KC: My father was a viola player, and so I studied cello and bassoon, and had a good contact with these two instruments. Then I started doing stuff on my own, playing guitar and banjo and country music, all of that stuff, and it was all about strings - I liked that string feeling. After this period of doing square dances and stuff, I picked up a bass guitar, and then I had to help out in a dance band playing college campuses and stuff like that. In the old days, the sorority houses used to hire bands for the weekend parties, and this was a dance band doing stock arrangements. It was very exciting and my first exposure to playing something in the jazz world. From there, I wanted to get a good bass and study.
AAJ: Who were some of the jazz musicians that you came into contact with after that?
KC: I wasn't really on any scene, you know, as this was Vermont. But some of the local guys were great musicians. There was a really great alto player whose name I can't remember, who was the main soloist in this dance band I played in. This experience got me started seriously listening to jazz.
AAJ: You eventually moved on to Boston, though.
KC: Yes, I was living in Vermont - I was married and had a family - so I was doing day jobs at this point. I was gigging around and studying with a fantastic local bassist; they had a trio that played in Burlington, Vermont, and it was really happening. I got turned on to piano-bass-drum trio music through that.
I went down to Boston to go to one of those IBM technical schools for two months and ended up working at a bank, so I moved my family down there and so forth. I started studying at the Berklee School of Music, and Herb Pomeroy ran the recording band. He asked me if I would like to play in the band, and he arranged that I could take all the courses that I wanted to for a year if I did all the recordings and rehearsals with the band. So I did that, and that's where I met people like Keith Jarrett, Byard Lancaster, Gene Perla and a bunch of people.
AAJ: And not long after that, you started making your way to New York in the early '60s.
KC: That's right, I met Michael Mantler through [pianist] Lowell Davidson, who was playing a lot with [drummer] Billy Elgart. That was very exciting, and Lowell knew Ornette. So we used to go down to New York and play with either Paul Motian or Milford Graves, just do a session and record it. Things led one to another, and then we went to do the opening of the October Revolution up in Harlem. Cecil and Alan Silva had a lot to with that, too, [and Amiri Baraka] with the Black Arts Cultural Center.
AAJ: But it sounds like Lowell was your first exposure to free playing.
KC: Exactly, he opened up a larger world for me. This was the beginning of a new period in my life. There was so much going on.
AAJ: How did the Revolution go for you? How did it look from your perspective?
KC: It was very exciting, just really something. There was so much shit going on in New York at that time, it was terrifying. It got to the point where we were commuting from Boston once a week. I got to meet some great people and started participating in some sessions over at the Vanguard with Carla [Bley] and Mike Mantler. This was the beginning of the Jazz Composers' Guild, and that's where I met Archie [Shepp], Roswell [Rudd], Paul [Bley], Steve Lacy.
AAJ: That was my next question. How did you get involved with Steve Lacy?
KC: Well, just by hearing that sound in the orchestra; we just sort of gravitated towards one another. He had some things going and he asked me to participate.
AAJ: He wasn't playing really 'free' at that point, either.
KC: He was playing very creatively like everybody at this time. He had this incredible sound, more lyric in a way, but very, very hip. It stood out and could burn through the biggest sound you could believe - it's like gold.
AAJ: It definitely cuts through on that Communications record [Jazz Composers' Orchestra, Fontana, 1965].
KC: He had all that stuff that he got from Monk, you know.
AAJ: Right, and Herbie Nichols.
KC: Exactly, and what Ros[well] and he were doing was just incredible.
AAJ: What was the first Lacy group you were in? I suppose [drummer] Aldo [Romano] wasn't in the picture yet.
KC: The first things I did with Lacy were in New York; we did a gig with Paul Motian that I remember very well. But this was the period before we went to Europe. We played a few gigs in New York, and then we did a thing for German television in Hamburg. This was a week's work in the studio, and we did a piece called "The Precipitation Suite" and some works based on the texts of Buckminster Fuller. I wish there was a recording of that; the tapes are around somewhere. Maybe Irene [Aebi] has them (I hope). Anyway, Karl Berger and Enrico Rava were on that, and Aldo Romano. It was a fantastic sound that the group had, too. After that, we went to Munich; certain gigs fell through, so we split up for a while. I stayed a month or so and then went back to the States.
AAJ: Lacy then came back to the States too, around '66 and '67.
KC: Right, though actually my first trip to Europe was with Paul Bley, in '64 I think, and I might have gotten together with Lacy then also. Anyway, the Paul Bley Trio went directly to Berlin from New York, and Barry Altschul was the drummer. We played at the Jazz Gallery for a week or two. Then we went to the Montmartre in Copenhagen; that was the period that he was with Annette Peacock. She wrote tunes like "Blood," very interesting tunes.
AAJ: Both Annette and Paul had this ability to waver around a tonal center; it was very ambiguous music, which made it interesting.
KC: Right, exactly, but structurally it was something else. They were very challenging to play on.
AAJ: So as far as small groups, was that a preference for you as compared to playing in the Jazz Composers' Orchestra, or were they worlds apart?
KC: They were worlds apart, but both very engaging. There was another part in Europe when Paul was here, as well as Carla and Mike, and they were putting together this European Jazz Composers' Orchestra. We were doing work for the radio in Holland, and I think Denmark and Germany too. There were people like Prince Lasha, sometimes Archie was there - whoever was in Europe at the time was on that gig, so it was something.
AAJ: As far as your music with both Lacy and Paul Bley, there was a transitional period at around '65, at least from what I can discern with recordings, where an album like Disposability was more straight-ahead and song-oriented, and then a year later, the music seemed totally free. From your perspective, how did that occur?
KC: Well, nothing is totally 'free'...
AAJ: That's true, but as far as 'dropping the tunes,' however...
KC: Well, Lacy wanted openness; he wanted to move out of something and get into another something. He wanted to move. He went through this period (and we all did) of working from scratch, just playing, and out of that process came his composing. I think this freedom was food for his compositions. That period you're referring to is the '70s, all those recordings we did then, right?
AAJ: Actually, I was thinking of the stuff from the later '60s, like Sortie [a completely improvised session from '66], and then up into the early '70s.
KC: I think that during most of the '60s he was still quite melodic; he never lost that, but he was also extending the horn more, which took us into other areas that could be interpreted as a free-for-all, but it wasn't.
AAJ: Spontaneous group creation might be better, then.
KC: Spontaneous group growth.
AAJ: Yes, process music.
KC: Right, exactly.
AAJ: You were also involved in some multimedia performances, bringing in painters and dancers and stuff like that.
KC: At least Lacy was, but there were some things in Judson Hall I think, and there was some contact with [choreographer] Merce Cunningham. We worked with some great dancers in Paris later on as well.
AAJ: Wasn't [painter] Bob Thompson involved too?
KC: Yeah, we hooked up with him in Rome; he was at the academy there.
AAJ: Right, he painted that great work of Ornette and his band, The Garden of Music [and the cover to Lacy's 1966 session The Forest and The Zoo (ESP)]. You've done some multimedia stuff in your own work, though, right?
KC: Oh yes, I've done some art videos and a lot of different things. I work with my wife [Michela Marcus] who is a choreographer, and I work with dance companies as well. I'm starting to work with a dance company in September as a composer and player.
AAJ: How do you integrate dance and music, or how do you view their relationship?
KC: Well, dance is a very beautiful thing and I like to be around it. The function is not quite the same as concert music, but there's a lot of room for creation. A lot of room for interesting things to happen; it's a wonderful environment. I love the theatre, you know.
AAJ: Do you find yourself having to structure the music more strictly for dancers?
KC: Oh yeah, it's not just getting on stage and improvising with dancers. We've done that and it works, but there's more to it than that. During that '70s period, [dancer/choreographer] Carolyn Carlson and Barre Phillips were doing some great stuff with John Surman and the late drummer Stu Martin; their work with Carolyn was excellent. She was with the opera for a long time in Paris.
AAJ: How did you get involved with some of the British improvisers in the '70s?
KC: I met them by going over to do a concert in London; John Stevens was involved, and he liked my playing and asked me to join him in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. That's how I met everybody there, and I could say that John Stevens was the influence in my English career. We did some stuff with Keith Tippett, John and Trevor Watts, working in the theatre and doing The Connection with an American director, and that ran for about three or four weeks.
AAJ: As in the Jack Gelber play, The Connection [done with music by Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean in 1960]?
KC: That's it; we did it at the Hampstead Theatre in London.
AAJ: Wow. I'm just thinking that the musical context is very different from how it was done in the '60s with Freddie Redd.
KC: I wish you could hear this version; it was burning! That quartet was fantastic. There are some tapes around of that; if you're into archiving, the guy to talk to is Martin Davidson [Emanem guru]. Martin is taking care of business; for this period and that kind of stuff, he's the man.
AAJ: Coming off of the Steve Lacy ensemble, how did you view John Stevens' music? How did that differ for you?
KC: That was a very interesting experience, because he was working on a 'chamber music' conception, with Derek Bailey and the soprano saxophonist Evan Parker, and he had a weekly thing going on at the Little Theatre Club in London, and whoever felt like playing that week would come out and do it. He was involved in a number of different things, but his conception was no conception. His thing was to sit down and make music with no clichés, just through interaction and listening. So this sound developed which was quite exciting once it got going. It wasn't so easy at first because you didn't have anything to hold onto.
AAJ: Right, because even with the Lacy group, when no tunes were used there was still a sort of vibe or feeling.
KC: There was an inner roar happening, there was a fire burning. And with John it was different; that fire was there but it came out in another way. The ensemble was the total thing, and it moved through space in such an incredible way. Have you heard it?
AAJ: Oh, sure.
KC: Isn't it amazing?
AAJ: It certainly is; it's very difficult music, and a lot of what I've heard has been a growth into something from a low burble, which is very hard to latch onto instantly when you first start listening to it, but after twenty minutes, you realize that you're just surrounded and it's amazing.
KC: And you start smiling, 'oh for Chrisssakes, this is incredible!' You don't take it off, but you leave it on...
AAJ: Even with the duo recordings, a lot of them sound sort of similar, but you notice these little things popping out - especially in the drumming.
KC: These events happen all of a sudden, and you don't know where they're coming from. He and Derek and these guys really developed that into something. I played with John in a more straight-ahead situation in Detail; it was more Ornette Coleman-oriented. I took Johnny Dyani's place in that group; Froede Gjerstad was the tenor player, and we used to work in Scandinavia. [trumpeter] Bobby Bradford was in the group when he could make it, and occasionally [violinist] Billy Bang. That was fun!
AAJ: Wasn't John living in Scandinavia for a while?
KC: He was teaching there; I don't know if he lived there, maybe for a while in Stavanga. He was quite involved in workshops and stuff [in Scandinavia].
AAJ: Coming from New York to Europe, how did you view the respective 'scenes'? Were they rather different?
KC: I don't particularly know what to say about that; if you're around people who have another way of appreciating something, it seems like the European audience knew something was happening before the American people knew what was going on. It comes from America, but when you come to Europe the people are sitting in an audience and listening to the stuff seriously, it's a much more cultivated situation in a way.
AAJ: There wasn't really a galvanizing thing like the October Revolution in Europe, though.
KC: No, but the '70s in Paris were quite strong because we had the Art Ensemble here and some other groups. It was moving, and everybody knew each other - it was a big family in a way, a scene.
AAJ: When you were in New York during the '60s, do you think there was as much community between players as you found when you got to Europe?
KC: Yes, but it was stronger [in the States]. I mean, this was a cultural revolution going on in creative music - a very serious matter, really. Europe has an older story and it has a history of diffusion in art. There, media institutions support real work as much as they can. That period was a struggle to free the creative musicians from the shackles of the music industry and to control their own destiny. The industry [in the States] never wanted to deal with 'Serious' music. That was a strong move.
AAJ: In Europe, there was even support from some of the major labels.
KC: Yes, and they were even coming over to New York and copping the stuff [Fontana, Polydor, etc.], putting it out. But we had Blue Note and Bernard Stollman who were very important in documenting the music. That's a long story with a sort of shaggy undertail, but at least it was out there. That supports what we're talking about though: 'come to the studio and we'll buy you breakfast,' you know. It was much more serious than that, but the American [public] didn't understand.
AAJ: As far as the financial stability with you and your bandmates in the Steve Lacy group, was that a major change when you went to Europe?
KC: It was a breath of fresh air because we had a job; we went to the studio and had something to do. Lacy put this incredible thing together and it was great. It was a paying gig; it wasn't disaster because you meet people and you moved around. We had Dutch, German, Belgian, French and Swiss radio, which was damn good. These were live concert broadcasts, and they were all documented - certain producers bought the stuff and put it out. Joachim Berendt, people like that.
AAJ: How do you view the bass differently in solo and group roles? I know you've done solo recordings and concerts and stuff, so how does one inform the other for you?
KC: Well, the bass chair in an ensemble is working for the collective so that you make other people sound good, and you sound good yourself. But the most important thing is to make everything around you as beautiful as possible. Out of that, you find your voice. Soloing - I'm not a great soloist. Lacy developed that beautifully, but I've done some solos and I find it very difficult. Just to go up and do an evening of soloing, I usually split the bill with somebody else. I've done it a few times, but it's not that much fun. For me, it's not my objective to become a virtuoso that could interest you for an hour and a half spellbound.
AAJ: It's hard to create music in that context that will grab and keep grabbing for that long.
KC: Well, there are some people doing it well; Peter Kowald was great at that stuff. I'm good for about a half an hour and then forget it [laughing]! It's something I never developed, because I wanted to do something else, you know?
AAJ: If your mettle is to playing in an ensemble, that's a totally different context.
KC: I've recorded solos, though, and there is some fascination in that too.
AAJ: Right, you've done some stuff with overdubs, like a one-man string orchestra.
KC: Yes, and this was a very important period for me. It was like homework, a big homework session that went on for about ten years, in the 70s. When I wasn't working out on the road, I was building up the string conception, which I'd wanted to do. Have you heard these recordings?
AAJ: Yes, I have the Beauvais Cathedral record [Emanem, 1974].
KC: With the technology that we have today it's just debris, but can you imagine playing around with a Revox or two?
AAJ: Well, it's a very interesting record. It has a quality to it that's hard to describe, a very private quality. It's a window on the process of making something, investigating these sounds.
KC: That's it, right.
AAJ: But you were also teaching during this period, am I right?
KC: Well, my only student at that time was Jean-Jacques Avenel, who is also a good friend of mine. He was with the Lacy group, but then I did some teaching later when I moved to the Southwest of France. This was a different period, around '83, when we were asked to teach in Angouleme and work with a group of artists, painters and poets. We were given a year to interact with these people and diffuse it. Then we were asked to teach at the Beaux-arts, so my wife and I went there for almost eight years. It was very flexible, so I did what I wanted to do, traveling and playing of course, but I would have that [gig] when I came back. This was around '83-'84. To be around art students, that's another beautiful environment.
AAJ: So at this point you'd left the Steve Lacy group, right?
KC: I left him in '82, I think. My last gig with Steve was in Japan; we went over to do a trio recording with Masahiko Togashi, Spiritual Moments [Sony Japan]. We had discussed that I was going to leave; I had to leave because I wanted to do my own work, and it was necessary to move over. I spent some fantastic years with Steve.
AAJ: And it obviously informed your work quite a bit. As far as your own writing, what would you say you draw the most from?
KC: Steve had an artistic integrity that moved me very much, and it's that spirit that helped me the most. My string writing is basically coming from the Eastern European tradition, and the emotional weight comes from that Eastern way of doing things. I'm putting a new string trio together with [violinist] Albrecht Maurer from Cologne and Katrin Mickiewicz, the Polish viola player. I think this will be interesting; they're coming down to record here in August - I have a recording studio here. It isn't state-of-the-art, but it's beautiful and that's sometimes just enough. The main room is about 100 square meters, and it's also used for dancing, but it's interfaced for recording. I have two more recording rooms in the back; you can just look out and see cows.
AAJ: As for the string trio, wasn't [violinist] Carlos Zingaro in it at one point?
KC: Yeah, he was in the first one. He's a fantastic player; I could not have done this without him. He played so great in this group, just incredible. Also Francois Dreno, the viola player. Their work with me I will never forget. It's going to be re-released on Emanem shortly; I did some work on the tracks and added some other stuff, so it's going to be a nice record.
AAJ: Have you ever entertained any thoughts of coming back to the US to do some work, or are you mostly Europe-based at this point?
KC: Not really. The States is a financial disaster. Even the work I did with Lacy while living here, I would come back and count the change at the airport. If you had one gig that didn't make it, you'd have to be at a motel for two days and you were fucked. That's the way it used to be in the old days. This all got better in the 80's for Steve, and people started getting interested in him again. I loved to play there; taking our European work over to New York and California was great, and it was received very well. Everybody used to come to the gigs, Cecil, Ornette, Gil Evans, it was very nice. And in Canada, places like Calgary; it was great.
I'd been asked to come over and do something with [trombonist] Steve Swell as an 'investment', like a recording. Klaus Kugel arranged it, but I didn't have the money or the time to do that. Other than that, I don't have any business there - I guess it's just that there's so much going on here. The European scene is fantastic, and I've been away so long that I don't know what's going on [in the States]. I don't really know how it works, and all my connections are here. I meet everybody there over here anyway.
AAJ: Right, because they can't get enough things going in the States. It still seems rather cutthroat to me, and you have to be a hustler.
KC: To launch something that would get people interested in me over there would cost some time and money.
AAJ: Other than the trio, what are some of the irons that you have in the fire for the near future?
KC: Different projects; I had my group called the Kent Carter Project, and I started to play with Karl Berger again, which is fantastic because we go back to the old days. He's sounding great. Klaus Kugel, the percussionist, I'm doing a lot of things with him - he started the Kent Carter Project a few years ago in Germany. Charlie Mariano joined us on that gig, Albrecht Maurer, and this wonderful soprano saxophonist Petros Vysniauskis. This record just came out; Karl is on it, and it's from a concert in East Germany.
AAJ: Mariano seems to pop up in the most odd and interesting contexts.
KC: He's a great player, really. I've been doing stuff with him in different combinations, having a good time in Germany. Bobby Bradford has been over here a couple of times recently, too.
AAJ: Right, you played with him and John Stevens.
KC: Yes, that record Love's Dream that Emanem just reissued, and it's fantastic. Trevor plays his ass of on this, and the two of them are just incredible.
AAJ: Trevor Watts is one of those players that people don't think of as being rooted in bebop, but he really is. It comes out on those Amalgam recordings, too.
KC: Yeah, he is. I was on some of those Amalgams too, and he's definitely underestimated. I don't know why; he's brilliant, and that's about all I can say. You can really hear it on Love's Dream , and Christ... people said he sounded like Ornette; so what - Ornette would love it!
AAJ: English musicians are not given enough credit for being able to swing and play hard, and everybody seems to think it's just chirpy music when it's not.
KC: It's not at all, and that's a good example. England is full of music and wonderful players. There is so much music going on in London that you can go to a concert at noon with a sandwich! I'm deeply interested in European improvised music, and it has come to a state where it's really an incredible art form. Jazz has helped it a lot, but it has moved into something else, and it's very exciting. It's getting serious!
AAJ: I guess when those albums were coming out in the late '60s and early '70s it seemed sort of provincial, but it has grown into so much more.
KC: For people who don't know if it's written or not, it really is, and it's instantaneously linked with all the contemporary stuff. The chops, the ensemble playing, everything is great.
AAJ: When I first got into the music, I started with the American players and it took awhile to move into the European players, and when you see first-generation European improvisers, it sometimes seems like they play with a lot more fire than American players of the same generation. I don't know if it has something to do with state health care or what, but it seems more energetic.
KC: I think the creative thing is freer here. There's something happening; even in France, the scene is difficult but there are guys here that are incredible. I'm playing with a composer, Francois Roussais, and he's an excellent composer - symphonies, chamber music, opera - but he plays the piano and it's incredible. His musical mind goes to the far corners of European music. Incredible technique, but it isn't jazz. He'd love to play jazz, but he can't.
AAJ: And there were a lot of composers who walked the line, like Berio and Kagel brought a lot of accomplished improvisers into a classical context.
KC: Yes, and this is what Francois Rossé is doing, setting up orchestras and we do our stuff. We work with this woodwind player from California who's been here for many years, Etienne Rolan, and he specializes in the basset horn. We do concerts, totally acoustic.
AAJ: You usually eschew amplification with your instrument, am I right?
KC: I do not like it - there is nothing like working acoustically. I know it's necessary if we're working with certain instruments like drums. But basically, no. It's like what classical musicians do, you set up and you work on it.
AAJ: Right, if you're really playing together you should able to be heard without any amplification.
KC: Absolutely. You never should hear 'I can't hear the bass, I can't hear the bass.' You only hear that when there's a sound system involved. Playing acoustically is a musical adjustment which is a part of music making; you create the sound within your acoustic environment with the ensemble.
AAJ: Amplification often adds this unnatural buzz; I play a bit of cello and amplification always muddies the sound, but if you're playing with other instruments sometimes you need it. It's a double-edged sword.
KC: Yeah, I just try to stay away from that, but sometimes you can't avoid it.
AAJ: I know you're tired of talking about this, but could you discuss what happened recently with you and the authorities?
KC: It's bad luck, and we have a problem. Without knowing it, we rented a guest house to people involved in the ETA. It's like the sky fell in and crashed. The musician friends here - they've done a beautiful thing, they made a big music day for us, twelve bands from eleven in the morning until nine at night, to raise money for our legal expenses, and it's very moving. Plus all the emails from all over the world, people I don't know from Istanbul and Buenos Aires, it's amazing.
AAJ: But you're soldiering on...
KC:It has inhibited my work internationally; we had some things in the fire that if they don't let me do them, I don't know what I'll do. But I hope we get this organized; I think they're going to trust us, and I don't need a passport to travel in Europe. Coming to the States is impossible - 'Mr. Carter, would you step this way please?' You won't be seeing me live there for a while.
Kent Carter: Encore