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Ron Carter: Brazilian Charm

AAJ Staff By

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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.
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