Ron Carter: Still Searching for the Right Notes

Rob Garratt By

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I understand that I’m probably the oldest guy who’s kind of famous right now playing the bass, and I don’t shy away from that. But I don’t wear the same tie every night — I try to play differently with everybody.
—Ron Carter
"People from newspapers and magazines always ask me two things," Ron Carter tells a reverent crowd from a stage in suburban Hong Kong. "What was it like playing with Miles Davis? And why am I still doing this?" He answers the latter enquiry by pointing left and right simultaneously at his two diligent sidemen, pianist Donald Vega and guitarist Russell Malone, to rapturous applause.

I had the chance to interview Carter around a week earlier, by phone from his home in New York City. I'm proud to say I didn't ask the second question —and have no shame probing the first. Carter's time alongside Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams in Davis' "Second Great Quintet" of 1964-68 objectively produced some of the most influential jazz recordings ever —and subjectively spawned some of my most treasured LPs.

The Ron Carter Trio's appearance in Hong Kong was the first in a nine-night tour of East Asia, which the 81—year—old bassist declared as a tribute to friends, collaborators and greats who have "left the concert": A sumptuous "My Funny Valentine" was dedicated a cryptic "ex-boss" who passed 15 years ago, while Jim Hall, with whom Carter recorded the sublime duo album Alone Together in 1972, was honored with a soulful reading of elegant original "Candle Light."

Nine nights may not prove nearly enough: Other notable cohorts passed Carter may choose to honor to in coming nights include Williams, Chet Baker, Eric Dolphy, Wes Montgomery, Horace Silver, Hank Crawford, Paul Desmond, Red Garland, Stan Getz, Andrew Hill, Freddie Hubbard, A Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones, Sam Rivers,... it's a list that could get very long, very quickly.

Working through much of the repertoire from last year's live Golden Striker trio LP (2017, In+Out Records), Carter was on steady ground, playing with impressive vitality and virtuosity. Wearing a perpetual scowl of concentration, trademarks slides and hammers, chromatic runs and ringing open strings, were executed with nuance and wit; his bright, buzzy but shapely rumble both grounding the band and serving as its lead attraction. Dressed in a tuxedo, playfully scolding audience members trying to creep out early, or tapping their feet a little too loud, Carter appeared the quintessential elder statesman of jazz —and it's hard to think of a more fitting ambassador for the genre.

All About Jazz: You're currently playing with a trio of Donald Vega on piano and Russell Malone on guitar —that's two polyphonic instruments, with a great potential for clutter—and no percussion. You've played with some of best drummer in the business. Don't you ever miss the beat?

Ron Carter: That's my job —I'm the drummer in the band. Three things: There's one less person to be concerned about playing louder than, drummers can always get too loud. Two, I can add some harmony to my rhythm choices, which drums cannot do. Number three, I can change the keys of the songs depending on how that song feels that evening. Drums can't do that.

AAJ: You talk a lot about "The Right Note"—that's the title of your authorized biography—and I think it's a great phrase because for every player, every musician, the right note will be a different one. And it highlights that eternal compromise between technique, and taste...

RC: When I play, I'm not trying to show off my technique. That's not why I look for these notes—it has nothing to do with demonstrating my skills, but with finding them. The right note has to do with: Is this the right note to make these horn players play something different than they played last night? Can this one right note change the dynamic of the group?

AAJ: So your role is to push the others, to be "the quarterback" of the group as you like to put it.

RC: That's my job. Absolutely.

AAJ: How does that work with improvisation? Because a lot of players say they are actively trying not to think when they improvise, but you talk about the note being in your head first—it all starts mentally.

RC: Yeah, I think they misunderstand—they're always thinking. They're not just playing blindfolded, if they did that, they couldn't play the form, they couldn't play the key, they couldn't play the changes. Everyone is pretty aware of their environment—they've learnt how to ignore it most of the time. But I don't believe improvisers are unaware of their surroundings—I'm not buying that school of thought at all.

AAJ: So, what goes through your head when improvising: Scales, landscapes, memories...?

RC: I'm thinking of the form, I'm thinking of the changes, I'm thinking: Can my bass line replace the bass line that was "meant" to make this song work? I'm thinking if my note's in tune. I'm thinking of these notes leading somewhere musically profitable for me. Are these notes giving the band a certain dynamic that they wouldn't have without these sets of notes? Those notes I play cover all those territories.

AAJ: So you're always switched on. There's never a case of you experiencing the famous musical trance?

RC: I understand the philosophy of being in a trance, but that's not my concept at all. I'm not zoned out, I'm aware of everything I can [be].

AAJ: Has that always been the case? I know back in the sixties everyone was supposedly partying pretty hard, for example, it's well documented that Wayne Shorter was a big drinker at that time...

RC: I don't know those situations. I never did those things. I don't know what those things did to those people. I've never been to that environment. I've never made that part of my lifestyle. I don't know how those guys do that, and I don't really care.

AAJ: Right—so you were always thinking, you're an academic player, in a way.

RC: No, not academic, I'm a musical player.

AAJ: You can see how hard it is to talk about music.

RC: Yes—and the more we talk about it the more we come up with these situations that don't seem possible. But we do the impossible every night.

AAJ: Do you approach your instrument any differently than you did say, 50, 60, however many years ago?

RC: Oh yes—I'm learning how to play it better. I'm understanding how it works. I'm understanding what the components are, what's the best string, what's the best pickup, the best sound post, the best height—those things are changing every day, depending on the weather, depending on the hall I'm playing, on how my hand feels—I'm playing better now than I ever did.

AAJ: In that case, do you ever listen back to old recordings and feel you could have done things differently? Or maybe even better?

RC: Yes—definitely better—they're both the same word to me. When I [listen back], I hear the choices I could have made that somehow I wasn't aware of. You know the word cringe? I cringe when I hear those choices I could have made.

AAJ: Does that feeling, that cringe, happen regularly when you look back on your extensive repertoire?

RC: Sure, I'm always hearing other choices. That's what growing up means.

AAJ: In that case, which records are most immune from this cringe factor? Which records do you feel proudest of?

RC: Oh, I don't do that answer. I've made so many of them, I don't want someone to feel ignored or left out and think that they weren't important. I never answer that kind of question.

AAJ: Fair enough. But we all know you were put on the map in '63...

RC: I haven't decided that, people decided that—I'm just trying to find the right notes, whether it's '61, or '62 or '63—or 2001, or 2010. I'm still looking, man, finding the right combination. That's why going to work is fun every night for me.

AAJ: Is there a sense then, that all these records, your entire career, is one long record, one long discovery?

RC: In the most broad sense, yes—it's like graduating from class to class.

AAJ: Some of those classes changed the rulebook for the entire genre. Do you ever look back, do you ever realize how important some of this music is to so many people?

RC: I get reminded of that, but I think my ego is not big enough to do that.

AAJ: Let me put it another way: How do you suppose you, beginning at one point as a very young man, ended up in all these situations that came to define so much music history? It must be quite a lot to compute.

RC: Yes. I have students who remind me, strangers who tell me, those are decisions made by someone other than myself man. I don't sit down and figure out: Is this record the best one of my career? Does this record make music do this and that? I don't do that—I think, what's the best note for this gig tonight? All the time I think, can I play it better than I did last night? That's paramount in my thoughts, and the results of these efforts, are decisions made by somebody else. I don't do those definitions—I just try to play. Of course, I'm aware of the history of music and history of bass, I'm not ignorant of those options and the results of some of my choices. But I don't sit down and dwell on that—it's just a chance to get better.

AAJ: At this point then, are you bored of talking about Miles and the 1960s, or is it something you remain deeply proud of?

RC: I accept that it's part of my history. I'm never bored by my history, but questions people ask me are questions that I don't have the answers to, or questions that are more personal than I care to answer. But now I'm comfortable giving my answers—you may not be comfortable enough to accept them—but I'm comfortable giving how I feel, absolutely. That's part of my birth right, part of my birth certificate.

AAJ: It's quite a legacy to carry around. You must have had no idea how important those records were when you were making them...

RC: No—I had no idea. None of us had any idea they would be where they are in the music development. We just played every night, had fun, and tried to find new things to do.

AAJ: Let me ask you one specific question, then...

RC: They're all specific, man. You're asking some specific questions.

AAJ: Well, I don't wish to pry too much, but I'm naturally intrigued—so much has been written about how the music of that band changed between 1963 and 1968, and the results have obviously proved so influential for generations of players ever since. As a listener it's impossible not to be fascinated with how that happened, how the group evolved in that time—you went from basically playing a standards repertoire to playing a lot of original material by all of you—how did the creative dynamic change, how did you communicate with one another, how were those decisions made?

RC: Well we all had an input to writing songs, making the arrangement[s], every night we were all trying to figure out how this music could work, and we had played the standard library—"All of You," "All the Things You Are," whatever—we played those songs enough times to figure out a lot of the choices that we would not have made had we not had a year or two to play those songs. And I think the natural progression of the four—the five—of us who were all equally curious about a direction of music. Not that we would be making that direction, but we would be part of something that was not quite the norm at that time. We tried to apply some certain rules of music, and these rules came by how we developed the library that we'd already played. It's just a matter of playing another kind of key, or a faster tempo, or a different song form—we were all pretty aware of those technical things that make music do what it can do, and we found a format for this newer library that a lot of [other people] didn't play.

AAJ: And that was bridge from, say, Seven Steps to Heaven to ESP, Nefertiti...

RC: Yes, exactly.

AAJ You did a wonderful interview where you named your ten favorite recordings, and you picked Seven Steps... from those days rather than any of the others, which is interesting because in some ways it's the least progressive, we could say. What is it about those recording that you really cherish?

RC: My note choices are really very good.

AAJ: Indeed they are!

RC: Yeah, they're pretty good.

AAJ: And at the same, there was a very, very different scene going on other at Blue Note, where you contributed to several wonderful recordings. As an artist, how was the process different there, and what is the secret to that famous Blue Note sound?

RC: A big part of it was Rudy Van Gelder and how he recorded the instruments, he had a certain sound in his head that he wanted the instruments to make, and the guys who worked out there understood and really had a way of making them sound special. Making them sound personal, only like them. The first thing was the sound of the instruments—the second thing is that we were all in the same library, experimenting with the same kind of chemicals, with different levels of harmonic concepts and a different melodic view. We were all willing to be able to accept another concept that's possible to add to our line of view.

AAJ: Adaptability seems to have been the pillar of your career. As a bassist, as essentially part of the rhythm section, how do you approach, say, a Nat Adderley session differently to an Eric Dolphy gig? How do you align your thought process differently going in?

RC:I trust my judgment to make the choices that they want me to make——that's a pretty easy answer. I have a level acceptance—I'm hired because I can bring a certain level of integrity to the music and I trust that they trust my judgment to work through it awhile and investigate. It's nothing more than that.

AAJ: It seems like the repertoire you're playing now—there's sense of wanting to celebrate and reinvigorate the classic forms of jazz?

RC: I don't treat this trio or any group I have as a group I'm using to make music different. I enjoy playing with these people and these different groups because they offer me a chance to try new landscapes every night, and respond to my choices, whether they are good choices, not so good choices, they will respond in kind. So I know how they feel about my notes choices and how my notes choices affect their concept, how my note choices affect the line they played last week, or the line they played with a different group. I enjoy these guys because they offer me all these opportunities—and the changing music, that's kind of out of my control.

AAJ: You talk a lot about note choices, but I understand you never improvise at home—you just play scales and classical pieces—all your thinking is done on the bandstand.

RC: I practice to develop the skill level, to help me find the notes I hear—whether they are the right notes depends on the environment I'm in, and what time I picked these notes to be heard. And when I'm at home I am in fact practicing classical études and scales and things that help me know the bass better—which give me a better chance of finding these notes choices as they come up spontaneously night after night.

But do I practice basslines in my house? No, I don't, I don't do that. The environment is too volatile, man—to practice a bass line at home that may note fit with Russell Malone, it may not fit with Kenny Burrell, it may not fit with Herb Ellis—that's it with these guys, why practice a line that doesn't work in my house by myself? I'm trying to find a skill level to make these notes available.

AAJ: And you never really did the fusion thing, like so many of your contemporaries.

RC: I had no interest in that. I appreciated what they had to do, and at the time they were successful. I'm comfortable to kind of keep on my trail, using my sound and my notes to make music do something different when you play it. I'm not competing with those guys.

AAJ: I understand you originally wanted to be a classical musician, and it was essentially the prejudicial system of the United States at that time that stood your way. Do you think you would be playing classical music today if that hadn't been the case?

RC: Sure. I had the talent, I had the look, I had the feeling, I knew the library—I think with the chance of getting better I could have been a major player.

AAJ: Music history would have turned out very differently had that been the case.

RC: I can't go that far ahead. I'm not sure I can agree with that, because I'm playing jazz, making music. I don't quite have that kind of concept in my head yet. But music changes, y'know. If it wasn't me, it would have been somebody else.

AAJ: Were you ever so disappointed, so disheartened, that you considered giving up music altogether?

RC: Yes—no, no, no... it was never a choice. There are too many notes available, too many options, too many other musics available. When I was coming up, in the jazz community everyone said, "everyone looks for a good bassist," that's kind of the byword. So if I can't play Beethoven's Fifth I can play "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck, or "So What" with Miles Davis—okay, that's another choice. I never thought of leaving it just because that avenue was closed, not a chance.

AAJ: But really, in truth, you'd rather be playing romantic symphonies than jazz?

RC: In truth, I want to play the right notes. Whether they're my notes or Rachmaninoff or Brubeck or Bach—there are the right notes, and it's, can I find my share?

AAJ: In that case, we all know how many records you've been on—you're in the Guinness Book of Records after all... [with a certified 2,221 individual recordings].

RC: It's not accurate anymore. That record is like three years old.

AAJ: So closer to 2,300 now?

RC: I don't know, man, but it's pretty up there right now.

AAJ: So, how do you decide which ones to do? You're clearly very much in demand, and also clearly very open to new offers and opportunities, what causes you to perk up and pick a project?

RC: It depends on what the project is, my availability, it depends on who they are—I'm surprised I get some of these calls because I think people don't know who I am who are not in the jazz community—and sometime I get these calls and I find I'm completely wrong. They know who I am, they know my history, they know about the records I made and think I could add to their project.

I get perked up if anyone calls me because they have other choices other than me, and if they have decided that I'm their guy, that pleases me and surprises me.

AAJ: Whether you like it or not, you're inevitably hailed as an elder statesman of jazz, which is particularly pertinent when you come and play somewhere like Hong Kong, which doesn't have the same jazz tradition as the US, or even Europe. You must be very conscious of the fact you represent not just your own body of work, or even that of people you've played with, but the entire genre to a certain extent.

RC: Well, I try to be as aware of the history as I can, and when I play it's one of the steps, one of the leaves of the tree. But to go back a moment—I understand that I'm probably the oldest guy who's kind of famous right now playing the bass, and I don't shy away from that. But I don't wear the same tie every night—I try to play differently with everybody.

AAJ: Is there a sense of being part of a certain generation—there's only a few of your guys left from the pre—fusion days—is there a feeling of being part of the last guard, almost?

RC: I don't worry about that kind of stuff, man. That's for you writers! I don't need to go to work with that, I just need to go to work and make these guys sound good.

AAJ: If you could assemble any group of musicians, living or dead, for one night only...

RC: I won't answer that question, for the same reason I won't tell you my favorite record.

AAJ: I didn't think you would, but I'm sure you can appreciate why I'm asking.

RC: No, no, no, I don't blame you—and I'm sure you accept my answer as being a logical and adult kind of answer.

AAJ: Looking forward, then, what does 2019 hold for Mr. Ron Carter?

RC: Well, I'm getting to be a better person, being able to understand humanity. I have my own questions about where we're headed on that front. My hope is I find I fine some good students who trust my judgment, and get better under my tutelage.

AAJ: You once said you wanted to be remembered as "a great bassist and a good friend." Sure you got that the right way round?

RC: Yes—no, the other way, a good bassist and great friend.

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