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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.
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