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Ron Carter’s place in the preeminent line of master jazz bassists is unassailable. Possessing a gargantuan technique he’s been a prominent bandleader and session man since his start in the late 1950s. Where he’s come under justifiable critical fire over the years is in his at times lamentable choice of projects. The two Milestone dates gathered on this recent two-fer unfortunately add ammunition to the claims.
Pick ‘Em matches Carter’s piccolo bass, a custom upright tuned to just below cello range, with a piano trio plus guitar and a quartet of cellos. Cycling through five originals and the appropriately bass-heavy standard “All Blues” the group plays tastefully, but from the start Carter hoards the spotlight and refuses to relinquish it. Every tune serves a feature for his nimble fingers and/or resonant bow and his melodic bass-centric musings are likely to try the patience of all but the most die-hard aficionados of the instrument. Things come to an early indulgent head on “B and A” where he overdubs himself in tandem on bass and its lighter cousin. His playing, while absorbing on a technical level, often seems to favor flash over substance. The saccharine phalanx of cellos doesn’t help matters and their histrionics, mixed with wah-wah guitar and wailing harmonica on the Countrified title track end up sounding like some kind of mutant “Sanford and Son” theme. Barron, Williams and Riley try to make the most of their truncated roles, but sound ill at ease filling in the few blanks left them.
Sadly Super Strings falls even further short of the mark. Hiring on an entire string orchestra Carter takes a stab at placing his virtuosity in front of a lushly orchestrated backdrop and ends up with bromidic mood music. “Bom Dia” wallows in pseudo Bossa rhythms buoyed by thickly amplified bass and cocktail piano. “Don’t Misunderstand” lands dangerously close to 101 Strings territory lilting along on satiny stream of spineless melodic flourishes. Carter’s instrument is again over-amplified and an excess of echo muddies the nuances of his ensuing pizzicato solo. Once again he insists on being the center of attention and while his first few improvisations are interesting, after a dozen or so they lose the majority of their luster. As if in answer to his employer’s grandstanding DeJohnette’s listless cymbal accents illustrate just how bored he seems with the pedestrian requirements of the session. Carter’s career ranks among the most prolific in jazz, and as such the overproduction and narcissism that spoil this a date make it one best left a forgotten entry.
Milestone on the web: http://www.fantasyjazz.com
Track Listing: All Blues/ Opus 2/ B and A/ Pick
Personnel: Ron Carter- piccolo bass, bass; Kenny Barron- piano; Buster Williams- bass; Ben Riley- drums; Kermit Moore, Charles McCracken, John Abramowitz, Richard Locker- cellos; Hugh McCracken- guitar, harmonica; Ralph McDonald- percussion; John Tropea- guitar; Jack DeJohnette- drums; Ralph McDonald- percussion; Sanford Allen- concertmaster; Harry Cykman, Kenneth Gordon, Glenn Dicterow, John Pintavalle, Marion Pinheiro, Sandra Billingslea, Richard Young, Alfio Micci, Stanley Hunte, Lamar Alsop, Maxine Roach, Jesse Levine, Harry Zaratzian- violins, violas; Kermit Moore, Eugene Moye, Jr.- cellos; Leon Maleson- bass. Recorded: December 1978, Englewood Cliffs, NJ and April 14-15, 1981, NYC.