Ron Carter: The Right Notes, Alright
"Ron Carter is one of the reasons I started playing bass," says Matt Penman, one of the young in-demand bass players on the New York City scene whose current projects include the terrific bands James Farm and SFJAZZ Collective. "His ability to contribute to diverse musical situations yet always sound like himself is amazing. Sound, length of notes, his beat and his walking lines."
It was cello that Carter first picked up as his instrument in high school but he switched to bass. Always serious about music, his talent was in the forefront as an undergrad student at Eastman. He practiced like hell. Put in tons of hours. With that and his natural aptitude, he was eating up his classical studies. But opportunities for African-Americans in classical orchestras weren't there. He could have reacted in many ways. Anger, to say the least. But today, Carter brushes it off in his no-nonsense manner.
"I wasn't mad enough to go to the post office for a fulltime job," he quips. "I decided that I put this time in and had the talent. There's music somewhere whose notes I could find that fit my notes." Carter was already playing jazz gigs in college for extra income. "The jazz community welcomes players who have that kind of interest and are looking for that kind of direction with open arms. They were looking for some notes, man. I figured maybe mine will work here. The jazz community said anyone who plays good has a chance to make a living at it. So here I am."
Carter "was the one who inspired me to play the acoustic bass when I was a young man," says John Patitucci, a bassist whose credits include a long tenure with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, as well as working with titans like Chick Corea and Joe Lovano. "Him and Ray Brown. But I heard [Ron] first." As a young man listening to Carter, Patitucci recalls, "His way of playing modally was incredible. His sound was incredible. His time feel was incredible. I always talk about him as the great architect of bass lines. I always tell my students no one will ever play a bass line hipper than Ron Carter from now until the end of time. A few of us, if we're lucky, will even get to approach it."
"The way he played in Miles' band in the '60s informs all bass players on how to have an anchor in the tradition and be able to function and all of that," Patitucci adds. "And all the music that came before. But also, how to handle the music as it changed and the form opened up. [Now] People can play on standard tunes but in a freer way like they did in Miles' bands with Herbie, Ron and Tony and Wayne. Ron wrote the book on that style."
Carter has seemingly done it all over the years, including playing with jazz orchestras. But something new surfaced in 2011: his first recording as the leader of a big band. Ron Carter's Great Big Band (Sunnyside) is a fine collection of jazz anthems penned by some of the greats, arranged by Carter's longtime friend, Robert Freedman. There are also two originals of Carter's and one Freedmen tune on the 13-song disc. It's a driving, swinging, good-time affair with some of New York's best big-band players in each of the sections. In the rhythm section with Carter is pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Lewis Nash. It doesn't get much better than that. "Not on this planet," Carter avows.
The idea for Carter to front a big band came about when the Somerled Charitable Foundation, which funds various creative arts projects, was looking to do a project with Freedman. "They asked [Freedman] if he was interested and he said he would only do it if I were available. I've worked with Bob for a very long time and always enjoyed playing with him. It would be foolish if we didn't take advantage of having some great music written for me. With me in mind. That's how he got started," says Carter. "Bob and I sat down to figure out what tunes I want to play. I don't get a chance to play those kinds of arrangements. Not by some guy as skilled as Bob is. Jumped at the chance. I like all those songs, man."
"Caravan," "Con Alma," "Footprints," and "The Golden Striker" are among the gems. Many songs come in at less than four minutes. The longest is just over five minutes. "You're not going to get radio play with a 10-minute cut these days, my friend. Short is a relative term," says the bassist. "I just like to have tunes that don't go 12 minutes on the record. I enjoy those versions that don't go on forever."
Carter also enjoyed the challenge of being at the forefront of a big-band experience. "It's a lot more difficult to play with a big band than when you have only three or four guys to be concerned with. When you only have four views to worry about [in a small combo], you have a little more latitude to ... not to say ignore everyone else, but make them play in your direction. I like those kinds of challenges."