Ron Carter: The Paragon of Bass Virtuosity

Jim Worsley By

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AAJ: Teaching has also been a hallmark of your career, having taught at many of the finest universities around the world. What have you enjoyed most or found to be the most rewarding aspects of teaching?

RC: That I discover more about music. When you are playing things for the kids, you have to demonstrate. It increases my verbal and language skills. It also increases my understanding of this music we call jazz. It makes me understand that every night and every day, there is something that you can learn to do better. I encourage them to come hear me play just so that they can see how I try to use the skills we talk about in class, how I apply this ability to play the instrument better each night to develop new ideas and concepts. When I realize a kid understands the "Xs" and "Os" of playing this music, I know that I have done my job.

AAJ: It's interesting that you have essentially become the student at times and are learning and growing along the way.

RC: Every night the students offer me a chance to get better and I'm happy to take advantage of it.

AAJ: Finding The Right Notes is the name of your biography and also the foundation of your musical presence. How do you approach each night in a manner to keep it fresh, find those notes and fuel the band?

RC: I try to remember the last night's experience the best that the mind can tolerate. I try to take what idea that I stumbled on and develop it for the second night. I am playing with people right now that are sensitive to my proclivities in doing this. They expect to hear an idea from Tuesday night on Friday night and see what I can do with that. It's that kind of challenge. One of my jobs, Jim, is to make bands better because I am standing there playing with them. That means I need to find the notes that night, that I need to find a different order, a little bit different tempo. I need to bring together an attitude for them that this is a chance for us to get better every night starting last night. If I continue to bring forth that presentation of my concepts, then it kind of bleeds out through the band. I get really proud to see them understanding that this is my intent.

AAJ: There is a stylish interplay with your current trio including Russell Malone and Donald Vega. They seem to be properly invested in finding those notes as well. Is that the sense of camaraderie that you have with them? You seem to be having a really good time playing together.

RC: It's a trust that I need those notes, and to try and make them work for the band playing in that moment. The point is for them to be able to express these notes in their groups. They become responsible for spreading this kind of information that you can't find anywhere else. My hope is that they will be able to understand what they just did and be able to translate that to a language that their band members will understand. That they will develop it and always try to make it better.

AAJ: I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing your trio live two or three years ago at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood. In addition to a stellar evening of jazz, I appreciated the tuxedo attire. In an era where casual—and sometimes less than casual—has become the norm, it was refreshing to see a professional jazz trio look the part. How important do you feel this aspect is on the mood and vibe that you are trying to create?

RC: Well, people dress casual in jeans and deck shoes at the clubs and that's okay, I suppose. But I want people to know that we are coming in to go to work and that this is our work attire. Once they see how elegantly we are dressed and how nice that look is, it sets a tone for them to be prepared to accept the kind of music we are going to play for them. I feel that a jazz player who is not dressed like that is not giving themselves a chance to immediately command their visual attention.

AAJ: It no doubt raises the bar. For many years, you have mostly played without a drummer. Is this primarily about creating space or more about putting the brunt, and therefore the challenge, of the rhythm on your shoulders?

RC: I just like the sound of a drummerless trio, man. It's a little more transparent because you don't have the sound of the drums. It does make me more responsible for where the beat is and what kind of time we are playing in. The drummer makes it a lot more obvious. I always caution drummers not to get mad at me for not having them. I'm just going through this phase of my life.

AAJ: What do you find to be the most challenging: the interactions and interplay as a group, or playing a solo?

RC: As a bassist, it is much more challenging to play a song with no help from another musician. It's really an amazing thing to do. I've been doing this for a while and it is a challenge to hold someone's attention with an instrument that isn't generally associated with solos and usually only playing two or three notes at a time. It's more challenging to be responsible for all of it: the rhythm, the notes, the tune, the tempo, the development of ideas and all of it. Playing together as a band has its own set of complexities that I enjoy being part of as well.

AAJ: As the most recorded bassist in history, there are hundreds of your records we could discuss. One that is particularly fascinating is Pastels (Fantasy, 1976). It is a wonderfully vibrant record very much with a full array of colors. It is complex yet washes over you like gentle rain. I was hoping that you could talk about the process and mindset of putting together that masterpiece.

RC: That was the first record I did where the company allowed my input to be at the top of the priority list. I thought it would be nice to have the bass featured at the bottom of the chord with an orchestra and still have it be important to the top of the chord. I needed to find an arranger who understood that option and would trust my judgement to make some changes to their notes. If I could find an arranger who would trust my judgment and allow me the latitude to work with the harmonies and the chords and manipulate the structures, I thought we would have a chance to make a pretty nice record. Don Sebesky, (who was a man I didn't really know) and I sat down together and had a conversation. I told him what I had in mind. He had never really done a record like this before. I asked him to trust me that I had a sound in mind, the notes in mind, and just needed the liberty to do it. I explained that if I could reshuffle some of things that were on the chart, we could have a nice duo accomplishment. It was him doing it for the first time and me doing it for the first time and I think the record turned out very well.

AAJ: That it did. Quite an accomplishment. Going in just the opposite direction of a record that required the large ensemble, your solo epic All Alone (EmArcy, 1988) is an acute blend of composition and artistry that keenly expresses story and mood. It's the kind of record that reaches you on a one- to-one basis, as if you are speaking directly to that one listener. Did this record feel that personal when you were working on it? Was there an intent to reach the listener in such a way?

RC: You know, I don't always recommend my records for students to hear because a lot of factors are involved. I don't want those factors to get in the way of my point. Having said that, one record I do recommend is All Alone. That day that we recorded the bass sound was so exceptional, and the recorded sound was so exceptional, that I could play anything I wanted to play and know that it would work very well. I wanted it to be free of all sound effects and plug- in machines. Just me and the instrument. The sound, a good engineer, and a great microphone. I wanted it to be that no matter where the listener put the needle on the record, it would not sound like the last tune or the next tune. I wanted each track to have its own story. My bass was using the same voice but with different vocabulary. I'm very happy that it struck you as a very nice record to listen to.

AAJ: Very much so. I don't want to overstate it, but sometimes it feels as if I am at one with you when I listen to it. I guess I just get where you are coming from, if that makes any sense.

RC: Good. Yes, it does. Thank you for that.

AAJ: It must be flattering to hear from the likes of Lena Horne and Bette Midler. How do you go about preparing for a performance with a vocalist as opposed to an instrumental gig?

RC: By and large, Jimmie, there is no special preparation for any band that calls me. I try to understand and appreciate the fact that this person who has called is not from the jazz community. It always amazes me how wide the world of music really is. Just how much every aspect, every concept, every sound is available to anyone who has the interest to find out what I do. Whether it is Lena Horne, Bette Midler, Paul Simon or others who call me to be a part of a project, my general attitude is that I am pleased that they believe that I can help them take that project to a different level. Hopefully, to the level they are looking for. I'll ask myself, "Can I make this record better because I am playing the bass? "

AAJ: Within the past couple of years you recorded "Nature Boy" as a duet with a lovely singer named Douyé. There are some exquisite note selections on display there. How did that arrangement come together?

RC: I had a great time with her. She is really a nice lady. She was very shy, and she found herself in this room with two great players. She found out how sympathetic great players are to someone who is trying to find their way. I had a great time with her.

AAJ: Legend has it that you once played hoops with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I believe you also played some basketball in college. How did it come to be that you shared a court with then "Lew Alcindor?"

RC: He was friends with the drummer from my original quintet, Ben Riley. I was hanging out with Ben and Kareem came by. We were shooting around, I made some and I missed some. Then Ben tells me that I had to leave. I told him that I thought I was doing "pretty good, man." He says "no man, your wife is having a baby!" So, I told Kareem good-bye, rushed to the hospital and Ron, Jr. was born about two hours later. Oh, and I did play a year of ball at the University of Rochester.
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