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Ron Carter: Brazilian Charm


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All About Jazz: You have said that Brazilian changes are different from the ways that Americans adapt Brazilian tunes. Do you think you were true to the Brazilian changes in your latest album, Orfeu?

Ron Carter: Absolutely. Definitely.

AAJ: What's different about Brazilian changes that Americans can't seem to grasp?

RC: Well, most American musicians haven't heard Brazilian musicians play. All they hear is Americans trying to play Brazilian music. Fortunately for me, I've been in Brazil for the past four Januaries. I've been playing with Brazilians since 1977 or so. And I've done several things with them, other than the work with my own band, during my tours down there. I, as well as my band, had had a chance to see the drummers and to see the percussion players and to work with them. While we played with them, we found out what it is that they do that makes their work so special. I think that if more American drummers could see Brazilian drummers play, they would play totally different. And when they play different, the bassist will play different too. Then the comping will be different. So there's a whole package that centers around the rhythms. Most American drummers just do the cross-stick on "clang clang clang. Clang CLANG." (The second and third "clangs" are off the beat. The final two "clangs" are on the second and third beats of the second measure.) The bass drum goes, "Bah-BOOM, bah-BOOM, bah-BOOM." But that's not all they play in Brazil. Their drums are tuned differently, of course. The cymbals are personal. But the rhythms the Brazilians play and where they play them are the most important facet of Brazilian drums and percussion.

AAJ: Of course, the Brazilians rhythms are based upon African rhythms, as Randy Weston always points out.

RC: Absolutely.

AAJ: Cuban jazz has become popular in the United States within the past couple of years. Do you see that happening with Brazilians too? Or is the Brazilian music being played mostly by American musicians?

RC: I think it's coming mostly from American musicians. I think that what has happened is that the Brazilian musicians who have in fact settled in New York or Los Angeles-those seem to be the two primary locations for them to settle-have become infected with American music. And I use the word "infected" judiciously. They become infected to the extent that they no longer play pure Brazilian music as the Brazilians would who have not left Rio, for example.

AAJ: You think the Americans are corrupting the Brazilians.

RC: Well, "corrupting" is kind of a strong word. I think Brazilians are being "infected" in a not-so-positive way.

AAJ: Is that because the Brazilians are exposed to more commercial music, or because they forget their indigenous music?

RC: I think they're playing with many more American musicians. The Brazilians pick up on what the Americans do and add it to their bag of tricks. My view is that that is not necessarily the best thing to do. I like to think that the Brazilian musicians are strong enough players to trust their musical instincts a little more and maybe not be so susceptible to an American rhythm.

AAJ: What is different about their rhythms?

RC: I would have to play a Brazilian drum and an American drum to really appreciate the difference. When you hear a real Brazilian band and then an American band, there's clearly a difference between the two of them. You can pick it up right away. That's an auditory example.

AAJ: Do you think that American musicians like Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd didn't expose Americans to true Brazilian music?

RC: Well, that was thirty years ago. I'm not saying that Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd didn't bring what they thought was Brazilian music to the States. Since then, however, Americans haven't heard enough true Brazilian musicians to know what it really sounds like, without casting aspersions on either of those two musicians.

AAJ: Why do you think prominent Brazilian musicians aren't touring the U.S., even though travel is freer between Brazil and the U.S., while Cuban musicians are touring the U.S. relatively more extensively?

RC: Right now, there's a Cuban craze here. The music gets the most interest that is associated with the fad. Of course, there's a big Latin craze at the moment. Latin musicians are getting a lot of gigs and air play that might have gone to Brazilian, or American musicians, for that matter. I was watching the news yesterday afternoon, and they were featuring a Latin band that had just received another Grammy nomination. That's basically the view from someone else that their Latin music is in vogue. There are several reasons why Americans don't hear as much Brazilian music as one would like.

AAJ: To the untrained ear, the larger audience often can't tell the difference between Brazilian music and other types of Latin music. To the general public, Latin music is Latin music.

RC: I can't change that. Of course, Latin music is "in" right now. It's pushing aside every other type of music. Jazz is not meeting the Latin audience now because Latin musicians have Latin music literally to play. So a lot of music is set aside and is replaced by the current trend toward music.

AAJ: Do you think Orfeu is helping to educate the public about Brazilian music?

RC: It may be. My hope when I made the record was that people would be able to sing one of the numbers when the record stopped playing. Aside from that, I would hope that they would hear what I feel is the most American Brazilian music they could find. Orfeu's intent wasn't specifically to educate the listeners to the differences between the musics. It's just a nice record that may appeal to a public that is looking for more than what they hear on the radio. I would hope that they would sing one of the melodies on their way to work or in the shower.

AAJ: Who was in your group that went to Brazil?

RC: That last time, I took the same group that performs on the record, minus Bill Frisell. Stephen Scott plays piano, Steve Kroon is on percussion, and Payton Crossley or Lewis Nash is on drums. Also, Houston Person made the last two trips to Brazil with us. Houston is a great musician.

AAJ: You were involved in some of Antonio Carlos Jobim's early records.

RC: Yes. We had some great Claus Ogerman arrangements. I performed with one of the early Brazilian singers who made it big in the States. Also, I worked with Don Costa, Milton Nascimento, and some of the great drummers from Brazil. As a matter of fact, I made a record called Petrou, which in Portuguese means "the boss." The drummer on the record was Edison Machado, who unfortunately passed away three years ago. He was given credit for inventing the Brazilian tap drum beat. It was a great pleasure to play with him because I had a chance to play with the real Brazilian drum beat. Again, not to beat a musically dead horse, but if more drummers in America had heard him play, they would know that Brazilians play differently.

AAJ: How does the bass fit into the difference between the musics?

RC: If you listen to most American bass players, they kind of mimic the bass drum. An American-tuned bass drum wipes out all of the notes. If you hear a Brazilian bass drum, it's not as persistent in its rhythms. Since the bottom is not sucked up by the bass drum sound, the bassist has a little more room to play a different rhythm. The bassist's work is more melodic in Brazilian music because you can hear every note. Also, the bassist isn't tied to the bass drum beat, which goes boom, bah-boom, bah-boom. Often the bassist can play a different set of rhythms, which helps the band get off the ground a little faster.

AAJ: How did you generate your first interest in Brazilian music?

RC: I knew who Jobim was, but I had never heard his music. I didn't have a stack of Charlie Byrd records, and I didn't know who Astrud Gilberto was. I was asked to do one of those Claus Ogerman early dates, and I just played what I thought would fit. Mr. Jobim was quite pleased. We did several later projects and maintained our contact.

AAJ: You worked with him as a sideman instead of as a producer of his albums?

RC: Well, I don't think of the bassist as a sideman. But no, I didn't work as an associate of his in producing the albums.

AAJ: You also worked with Flora Purim.

RC: Yes, and Jobim has a sister who sings well. I made records with her. I recorded with Luis Bonfá years ago, down in Rio, as a matter of fact. So I've had a long connection with the Brazilian community, musically speaking.

AAJ: Where do you perform with the musicians when you go to Brazil? In the community? In concert halls?

RC: In concert halls. Also in night clubs, where we come in and play a tune with the band. We go to recording sessions. I seldom go out and jam because that's just not what I do. But we find places to play.

AAJ: You play in more formal venues.

RC: Well, the Brazilians' basses are physically no different from mine. But most of them play electric bass, which isn't really what I do. It's a little difficult as an acoustic bassist to go jam down there. However, American drummers and percussion players have a great time jamming in Brazil.

AAJ: You've played electric bass, but you don't play it often. Is there a reason?

RC: I decided some time ago that being good on both was more than I had time to do. Right now, there are so many great players on electric bass that they don't need my presence to make the instrument more effective. Evidently, they're already doing that. I decided to devote the time that would have been split trying to learn electric bass at a little better level to learning the upright.

AAJ: Do musicians have to compromise to play both instruments?

RC: Oh yes. That's not a question for me. You can't play both at the same level of skill. They're completely different. I've never heard an electric bassist play the equivalent music on upright. There's a fall-off in performance levels. I've never heard an upright player transfer the same level of performance to an electric bass.

AAJ: What is it about the upright that attracts you?

RC: Well, it's a pretty long story, but right now what attracts me is the ability to play what I hear and have it sound right with a great tonal quality.

AAJ: And your style is unique. In fact, you said that you play notes that no one else does.

RC: You have to trust your instincts and master the harmony. I got a couple of degrees in music a long time ago. I listen to what goes on around me as completely as one can in that kind of environment. I think my job is to find the note that will make the soloist not play what he would play in his living room. Or I like to create a rhythm that will make the band take a different direction. That's what I enjoy doing.

AAJ: You had said that the bass is the focal point of a group.

RC: The bassist acts as the quarterback, yes.

AAJ: The bass is usually in the background, though.

RC: Yes, but if the bassist can understand how to command, he's in the background only in people's perceptions. The music takes the direction the bassist designates. That is what's really important.

AAJ: Doesn't the bassist have a dual role: laying the foundation for the group but also being dependent on what the other musicians do?

RC: That's what group playing is all about. If the musicians and those who are listening to the band hear the on-the-spot performance, they can get a lot of other things going on, whether the bassist is aggressive or not.

AAJ: Would you describe yourself as an aggressive bassist?

RC: Well, I guess "aggressive" isn't the right word. But I think I'm one person who can make the music go in the direction I want it to go. I try to make the group do something that's not part of their normal routine.

AAJ: And you pushed Miles' group too?

RC: Yes. We all listened to everyone else's input, and we trusted the direction that a member of the group would pick. We didn't have to take a vote, and there was no ego in the way of the direction suggested by someone else for trying the next chorus or the next song or the next set. When you have players of that quality, nothing is impossible.

AAJ: Miles didn't have an ego as the leader of the group?

RC: The music was the ego. We tried to play as well as we could and develop something new every night.

AAJ: You had said that a lot of today's musicians just play one set a night and are gone, instead of developing their craft by playing several sets every night of the week.

RC: I think that the longer you can play a library, the better you have a chance of understanding what it's all about. To do one hour a night and go home-especially the younger players who are just beginning-doesn't provide the chance to do a lot of things, among them the development of a real sound on the bandstand within the group, the development of a library, and to develop the ESP that makes music really work. By playing often, musicians get to the point where a multitude of directions can take place.

AAJ: Do you see much of that now?

RC: No. I think development doesn't seem as important today as it was then. Everyone expects the young musicians to be able to play right away. The recording experience has made the audience not to expect to hear any growth. And if the audience doesn't expect any growth, they accept whatever is put before them as already grown. Just add water and mix! In earlier days, you had to find the right soil, find the right water and find the right seeds while still on the bandstand.

AAJ: You've played with George Benson, and critics have said similar things about him: that he's a product of the label and that he hasn't grown.

RC: I think that if those critics heard George play guitar, they wouldn't feel like that. His singing is a whole other matter, and that's what they have to live with.

AAJ: Do you see many younger musicians with an interest in bass? It's a difficult instrument to play.

RC: I don't have to recruit anyone in the sense of going out with a butterfly net and locking guys up. But I think that the more that young players see upright player perform, the more they can be attracted to the bass. If they're already looking for something to play, I think they can be attracted to the bass without a lot of persuasion.

AAJ: Doesn't it take a long time for a bassist to be proficient on the instrument because of intonation and other challenges?

RC: It takes a long time for musicians to be proficient on any instrument. Bass is not the exception. It's six of one, half a dozen of the other. When you're on a panel, you find a lot of different views about this subject. But clearly, the bass is a physical instrument.

AAJ: True. I've read that some bassists complain about calluses.

RC: Bassists have calluses; drummers have calluses. If calluses are the reason a person gives me for not wanting to be a bassist, he doesn't need to be a bassist.

AAJ: You started out on cello when you were eight?

RC: Yes.

AAJ: Do you think the cello influenced your style?

RC: Probably not. But it gave me a sense of practice discipline and that I needed to learn a library of some kind. I took on the skill level to play whatever library I was presented with.

AAJ: How did you start on cello?

RC: A female music teacher came out to the elementary school and said, "We have some instruments here. We're going to start an orchestra. You should pick the instrument you're going to spend some time with." I decided on cello.

AAJ: How did you choose cello?

RC: It seemed to have the sound I was interested in.

AAJ: You were serious about studying classical music at first when you lived in Ferndale, Michigan.

RC: Yes. I had a private teacher.

AAJ: You switched to double bass in 1954?

RC: Yes, during my senior semester of high school at Cass Tech. I went out and bought a bass. At the age of sixteen or seventeen, I sold my cello and went out and got a job delivering newspapers. With that income, I made payments on the bass and paid for private lessons. I was very responsible at seventeen. My parents had already bought me the cello. It seemed like the next thing to do was for me to be responsible enough to buy what I wanted to play.

AAJ: Where did you first play the bass.

RC: We had a full orchestra in high school. After that, I went to Eastman School of Music for four years. When I graduated, I started playing jazz with a more serious intent.

AAJ: You weren't exposed to much jazz until you went to Eastman?

RC: I knew it was on the scene, but I had another focus at that point. The orchestral library took up most of my interest.

AAJ: And you got your master's degree from The Manhattan School Of Music in 1961.

RC: Yes. I was still in New York when I went to The Manhattan. My intent was to become a musician in New York after graduation. I joined Chico Hamilton after I graduated. Well, actually, I joined Chico before I went to school. I delayed my entrance to The Manhattan by a semester. During the semester that I didn't attend school, I was on the road with Chico Hamilton.

AAJ: How was that experience?

RC: Great, man. I got to go to different cities and go to different clubs and encounter different problems in the musical environment. It was wonderful. Eric Dolphy was in Chico's band at that time too.

AAJ: After Chico Hamilton, you performed with people like Cannonball Adderley and Don Ellis.

RC: We just performed gigs in New York. There were a lot more clubs in New York than there are now. Back then, you could work every night somewhere in New York because there was always a lot of live music and a lot of places to play.

AAJ: How was your experience with Don Ellis?

RC: He had a whole different approach to music, and I'm not sure that I would have wanted to spend any more time with his band than I did. But he was a nice person, and he had another way of looking at music. For him, 4/4 wasn't the only way to play it. It was interesting to hear what the other possibilities were, and he spent a lot of time developing those other possibilities that were successful for him. As a bassist, I'm always aware of the various approaches. The more people a bassist plays with, the more possibilities he discovers are available to him for use in other environments. It's a continuous learning process to this day.

AAJ: The work with Don Ellis was your first exposure to non-conventional meters?

RC: It was always available in classical music, but working with Don Ellis was the first real time I spent with it as a jazz musician.

AAJ: Did you meet Herbie Hancock for the first time in Miles' group?

RC: Yes, that was where I was introduced to him. Herbie is the best pianist pound for pound. I look forward to performing with him whenever it's possible. He can do everything. Not only that, but Herbie has the ability to play and listen, in my case, to what I'm doing and adjust his process as he's playing to the direction I'm trying to take him. There aren't many piano players who can do that and still keep things going. Miles' group was the type of group that allows the individuals to grow.

AAJ: I had read that you've performed on over a thousand albums. How do you manage your time to be that productive? You also tour and teach.

RC: Three thousand albums. I need to update my bio. In the earlier part of my career, there were a lot of really good record companies recording jazz-Blue Note, Verve, Prestige, Impulse. So, it was easy to have the time to record because the recording opportunities were always available. Now, it's not so easy to record because there aren't as many companies who record the music. I mean, Sony has a jazz label in a general sense, and Prestige doesn't record much jazz any more. It's kind of difficult to maintain a recording schedule when there isn't much recording going on. Back then, though, people made themselves available for a project. If Herbie wasn't available on Monday for a record date, we'd find out when he was available, and then we would schedule it around his availability. The same was true for me. If I wasn't available on Monday due to previous commitments, the producer would find the time when we would all be available for the project. When you have that kind of flexibility in schedules, it's easy to record often.

AAJ: You don't see as much activity now as before.

RC: Certainly not.

AAJ: So your recording schedule for the three thousand albums was front-end-loaded.

RC: I'm as active now as before, but there aren't as many companies available to do recordings. I don't want it to sound as if I'm retiring from the recording industry. I think the industry itself has changed. Rudy Van Gelder does a third of the work that he did thirty years ago. I doubt that there will be as much recording in the next ten years as there was in the past ten years. The recording for advertising commercials has just about stopped compared to thirty years ago. There are still a few dates going on, but there was a time when musicians would do twelve or fifteen jingles a week. If they do fifteen jingles a year now, they're ecstatic.

AAJ: Of course, now EMI and Time/Warner have merged.

RC: I don't know how that will affect the music. It probably means that a lot of acts will no longer be with the labels. That's another reason why it will be difficult to keep recording. Independent labels don't have, I think, the wherewithal to give an artist the push that a major label would. Whether the labels are good or not is a totally different question. But the funding isn't the same.

AAJ: Of course, some musicians like Kenny Barron and Gary Bartz are trying to develop their own labels.

RC: A lot of musicians do that. I wish them a lot of luck, but it's a lot of work. I don't want to devote that much time to doing that sort of thing.

AAJ: You had written the song R.J. about your son. Has he developed an interest in music too?

RC: He's an electric bassist, and he plays very very well. He works with blues bands in New York now.

AAJ: Did you teach him how to play bass?

RC: No, he did it on his own, man. He went out to hear guys play, and he took lessons when he could. He was very good at listening and picking up ideas.

AAJ: Did any other of your children take up music?

RC: I have another son who's a painter in New York.

AAJ: They must look up to you quite a bit, especially R.J. You always project class and dignity. You dress well. You've appeared in advertising. You must command respect.

RC: They see me as their father, and that's enough for me. Of course, they see me as a musician, but that's not how they perceive me primarily.

AAJ: Are you working on anything at the moment?

RC: Right now, I'm practicing piano. I don't play it well enough for what I need to do in school. I spend an hour a day just playing scales and chords. Also, I just got a different bass. It's a new bass for me, but it's not a new bass in terms of age. I'm spending time seeing what it does.

AAJ: And you developed a piccolo bass.

RC: It's a half-sized bass that's tuned differently from a normal bass. It's tuned in fourths also. But it's tuned so that the top string is C, the second string is G, the third string is D, and the fourth string is A. That basically puts me above the rhythm bassist in my band. But the piccolo bass doesn't sound high like a violin or a viola. It's a great mixture of a tenor cello and a soprano piccolo bass. The reason I use it is that I wanted to be a band leader. I think in any room, whoever is in front is assumed to be the band leader, whether he is or not. So, I thought it was important to establish with my band that, yes, I'm the band leader. Now that I'm leading the band musically, I also lead them physically by being in front.

AAJ: Did you develop your piccolo bass with an instrument company?

RC: I did it on my own.

AAJ: Is your version of the piccolo bass being sold, or is it a unique instrument?

RC: Anyone who plays a half-size bass can retune it and have the same effect.

AAJ: So you're not trying to market the instrument.

RC: I still learning how to play it.

AAJ: It sounds like a continuous learning process. You're still learning about the music, you're still learning about the piccolo bass, and now you're learning more about piano.

RC: That's what it's all about, man. If you want to improve, you have to spend some time with the instruments.

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