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.