Ron Carter: The Right Notes, Alright

Courtesy Hans Speekenbrink

R.J. DeLuke BY

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I tell students I used to play three sets a night and they are stunned by that possibility. But that's how we developed our own sound and vocabulary, and figured out the best set of notes to play. They need to get that kind of brass-knuckle playing.
There can't be any jazz musician or jazz listener who doesn't know Ron Carter and his standing as one of the most successful and influential bass players in the history of music in America. He's a musician of the highest order, with a rich, immediately identifiable sound that has resonated in the jazz world for some five decades. Those beautiful bottom notes. Always on the search for the right ones, he probably hasn't played too many clunkers over the years.

It's inevitable that Carter is forever associated with the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-to-late-1960s that many regard as the ultimate small group in the history of anything related to bebop, regardless of what adjective or prefix is married to the word. Carter, along with pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams—with Davis at the helm—brought improvisation, communication, risk-taking and musical exploration to a level so high it is as yet unequaled. It propelled Carter and the others to fame.

But Carter's career is much more expansive, like all his mates in that legendary assemblage. He leads his own groups and has contributed to countless projects of other musicians in various genres, including classical, the music in which he was entrenched as a young man. Carter has appeared on more than 2,000 albums—a staggering feat. The wide-ranging list of those he's performed and/or recorded with includes Eric Dolphy, Stanley Turrentine, Aretha Franklin, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, A Tribe Called Quest, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Roberta Flack, Grace Slick, Phoebe Snow, Alice Coltrane, Livingston Taylor, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Coleman Hawkins ... and on and on.

Few bass players are held in such high esteem as this gentleman from the Detroit area who hit New York City after getting his bachelor's degree in music from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, in 1959. He's been there ever since. Now 75, he's going strong, playing and instructing young musicians. Early this year a Ron Carter Scholarship was created at the Julliard School of Music where he teaches. He's won numerous awards over the years and his achievements speak for themselves. But Carter's feet are firmly ensconced in the terra firma. Just like his playing.

"I'm just a country boy, man," he says tongue in cheek. "A very comfortable country boy. That's all I am. I've been given a talent by the creator and he's allowed me to develop it this far and hopefully he'll give me another chance to keep looking."

Carter is a self-assured, astute man; a sharp observer of the world around him. Quick to react in a conversation, but chooses words carefully. He's direct in a refreshing way. And he has a sly wit.

"I'm not really comfortable with that level of aggrandizement," he says of his standing in the music world. "Which isn't to say I don't feel I haven't worked to earn it. I just don't feel always comfortable to accept it, knowing that I've got more notes to find."

Ron Carter Great Big BandFinding notes—what he routinely calls "the right notes"—is what Carter is about as a musician. He took the anchor-like, timekeeping role of the bass and, following in the footsteps of Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro, gave the instrument an equal, unique voice within a group. Aside from the huge Davis legacy—including the great new addition, Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Volume 1 (Columbia, 2011)—his trademark sound uplifts so many recordings. On his own Etudes (Elektra/Asylum, 1983)—a piano-less date—Carter upholds the chords, rhythm (with Tony Williams) and bass lines for the horns of trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Bill Evans (saxophone). His ringing bass is forceful and joyous on "Earl's World," off trumpeter Charles Tollivers debut, Paper Man (Freedom, 1968). Pianist Horace Silver's Silver N' Percussion (Blue Note, 1977) seems to be written for Carter, despite the title—the force of his bass so strong, his sound so full, the notes so "right." To conjure up an image of Atlas holding the world on his shoulders is to convey what Carter is to that recording.

His innovative piccolo bass experiments, with his 1970s quartet that produced albums like Piccolo (Milestone, 1977), are extraordinary. A resurgence of that band is not out of the realm of possibility, Carter hints.

"Ron Carter is one of the reasons I started playing bass," says Matt Penman, one of the young in-demand bass players on the New York City scene whose current projects include the terrific bands James Farm and SFJAZZ Collective. "His ability to contribute to diverse musical situations yet always sound like himself is amazing. Sound, length of notes, his beat and his walking lines."

It was cello that Carter first picked up as his instrument in high school but he switched to bass. Always serious about music, his talent was in the forefront as an undergrad student at Eastman. He practiced like hell. Put in tons of hours. With that and his natural aptitude, he was eating up his classical studies. But opportunities for African-Americans in classical orchestras weren't there. He could have reacted in many ways. Anger, to say the least. But today, Carter brushes it off in his no-nonsense manner.

"I wasn't mad enough to go to the post office for a fulltime job," he quips. "I decided that I put this time in and had the talent. There's music somewhere whose notes I could find that fit my notes." Carter was already playing jazz gigs in college for extra income. "The jazz community welcomes players who have that kind of interest and are looking for that kind of direction with open arms. They were looking for some notes, man. I figured maybe mine will work here. The jazz community said anyone who plays good has a chance to make a living at it. So here I am."

Carter "was the one who inspired me to play the acoustic bass when I was a young man," says John Patitucci, a bassist whose credits include a long tenure with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, as well as working with titans like Chick Corea and Joe Lovano. "Him and Ray Brown. But I heard [Ron] first." As a young man listening to Carter, Patitucci recalls, "His way of playing modally was incredible. His sound was incredible. His time feel was incredible. I always talk about him as the great architect of bass lines. I always tell my students no one will ever play a bass line hipper than Ron Carter from now until the end of time. A few of us, if we're lucky, will even get to approach it."

"The way he played in Miles' band in the '60s informs all bass players on how to have an anchor in the tradition and be able to function and all of that," Patitucci adds. "And all the music that came before. But also, how to handle the music as it changed and the form opened up. [Now] People can play on standard tunes but in a freer way like they did in Miles' bands with Herbie, Ron and Tony and Wayne. Ron wrote the book on that style."

Carter has seemingly done it all over the years, including playing with jazz orchestras. But something new surfaced in 2011: his first recording as the leader of a big band. Ron Carter's Great Big Band (Sunnyside) is a fine collection of jazz anthems penned by some of the greats, arranged by Carter's longtime friend, Robert Freedman. There are also two originals of Carter's and one Freedmen tune on the 13-song disc. It's a driving, swinging, good-time affair with some of New York's best big-band players in each of the sections. In the rhythm section with Carter is pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Lewis Nash. It doesn't get much better than that. "Not on this planet," Carter avows.

The idea for Carter to front a big band came about when the Somerled Charitable Foundation, which funds various creative arts projects, was looking to do a project with Freedman. "They asked [Freedman] if he was interested and he said he would only do it if I were available. I've worked with Bob for a very long time and always enjoyed playing with him. It would be foolish if we didn't take advantage of having some great music written for me. With me in mind. That's how he got started," says Carter. "Bob and I sat down to figure out what tunes I want to play. I don't get a chance to play those kinds of arrangements. Not by some guy as skilled as Bob is. Jumped at the chance. I like all those songs, man."

Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1967"Caravan," "Con Alma," "Footprints," and "The Golden Striker" are among the gems. Many songs come in at less than four minutes. The longest is just over five minutes. "You're not going to get radio play with a 10-minute cut these days, my friend. Short is a relative term," says the bassist. "I just like to have tunes that don't go 12 minutes on the record. I enjoy those versions that don't go on forever."

Carter also enjoyed the challenge of being at the forefront of a big-band experience. "It's a lot more difficult to play with a big band than when you have only three or four guys to be concerned with. When you only have four views to worry about [in a small combo], you have a little more latitude to ... not to say ignore everyone else, but make them play in your direction. I like those kinds of challenges."

The recording brings different flavors and feels to the genre and does so expertly. It's a superb disk and the band is kick-ass, but the leader knows it's hard these days to bring a large band out to play the music live.

"Right now, we're kind of limited to working in New York City, because they have nice clubs in New York that can handle not only the budget for a big band, but the size of the bandstand for 16 people to be comfortable on the stage. I would like to take it somewhere else, where we can take a bus or a van. Take them to Washington or Boston or Philadelphia. But that's a little awkward too. If we can find the work, we'll find a way to get them down there. Or up there. I would take those guys anywhere I could afford to take them."

A tour, he feels, would be a musical challenge as well. One he would enjoy. "It would be interesting to see how they would function given the kind of pressure they're going to be under to deliver night in and night out when they aren't going home and going to bed to think about it. My job is to make them uncomfortable, to get the best out of them consistently. I generally have a plan in mind. I think of a story I want to do for the evening. My concern is can I get the guys to buy into my story?"

Carter's story is a varied one since coming to the Manhattan School of Music for his master's degree after graduating from Eastman in Rochester. He's been in the Big Apple ever since. He also lived through the beginning, and pretty much heyday, of jazz/rock fusion. That usually meant the electric bass. Carter played it a bit, but decided to remain with the upright instrument he had spent so many years studying and elevating.

He explains, "To be competitive with all those wonderful [electric bass] players who were already there before me, it would have taken more work than I really had the time to do. Those bass players put in a lot of time to make that right. To do what those guys were doing, I didn't have the time to develop that kind of wherewithal and those kinds of practice hours. I was comfortable enough to know maybe I had something here [with the acoustic] and let me see what I can do with this. I was always active. I was playing every day. I was playing gigs in the afternoon. I was practicing in the early afternoon. I was working at night. I was as busy as I ever wanted to be. So I wasn't looking for gigs to do. I was trying to find out if I could get something better going than what I had. To do that, it takes a focus. I knew I couldn't do that kind of intense focus to make the electric bass as much mine as I was trying to make the acoustic bass. I was comfortable to step back and let those electric players who already had a head start on me keep going.

"I appreciated them finding the direction they wanted to do to make their music successful," he says of the fusion breed like Joe Zawinul and new directions of Davis and Tony Williams. But, "I just didn't have the kind of interest to put into the development that those guys did. They put in a lot of time rehearsing and writing the arrangements. I had another sound in my ear and another set of notes that I could find more musical happiness with—that I had already worked toward doing."

He had already made the acoustic thing soar. With Davis from 1963-1968, the music grew, expanded, took on new faces and new places. Even the musicians in Davis' band, caught up in the middle of it, didn't know exactly where their daring-do would take them.

"Those guys were crazy," Carter says with an obvious sparkle filled with fondness for that groundbreaking time with brilliant musical minds and great friends. "Those guys were all nuts. They should've been locked up."

"There was so much stuff going on, it's hard to separate the events as they went down," he says. "At the time, no one, as far as I could tell, was thinking, 'Is this important music?' or 'Is this going to get famous?' We were really just looking every night to see what kind of music we could stir up and still have some validity with the original melody and the original changes. Miles didn't preach anything about the right notes. He trusted our sense of ... I guess being curious is a good word. Being curious to find out what kind of rhythms, what kind of changes we could put in to replace those already there, that would make the music have a different kind of life. Being in that laboratory, we had fun every night."

The more the band played together, "the more outrageous it got. Every night was a chance to play some new music. And some wonderful music. And if it didn't work, we knew we had one more chance to try and get it right. Tomorrow night's coming up. Let's worry about tomorrow night. None of us were thinking along the lines of the band having the reputation it ultimately got. I think we were all trying to find a way to make the notes we heard function. Can we make this music have a life? [Davis] was as surprised as we were with the results. We took chances. We took turns steering him somewhere.

Carter is quick to state that Davis was excellent to work for and a good friend, "and I miss him dearly." Stories of the "evil" Davis don't resonate with Carter. "I never saw those events take place. So I'm kind of out of the loop as far as a person who can say this happened or that happened. I don't know those situations people talk about." And silly criticisms, like Miles turning his back to the audience, "That's so he could hear the band better. That seems like a reasonable way to do it."

The bassist is comfortable that the stint with Davis solidified the careers of those in the band. He also knows his talents brought him there and his talents have sustained a superior career beyond that time. "Yes, I was there. Yes, I had a great time. I look forward to seeing Miles upstairs in the sky, trying it again."

After that gig ended, Carter's phone was ever ringing. He has done countless studio sessions and appeared in nightclubs in innumerable settings. It could seem, for a time, that he was in a constant rush from one session to another. "But it was all fun. I got a chance to play some wonderful music with some strangers and wonderful music with some people I was familiar with. I was always surprised that people in different industries would know that I existed. When you're making music, you're just kind of making the music. I wasn't keeping track of the records I made or who I made them with. Just a chance for me to find out how this bass worked. I'd find a set of notes that would attract attention in a positive way ... I thought I had the right kind of sound in my ear. My job was to try to make that sucker work, man."

Carter has never hurt for work. It's not because he feels he is in some upper echelon. But he understands his abilities and is confident in himself and what he has to offer. Carter is realistic when he looks at where he fits on the scene and he stands by his beliefs.

"I always felt that given the choices that these producers and bandleaders had to assemble a group, they would feel my input would make their project successful. That was enough for me. I didn't worry about not getting called or someone else getting a gig. I'm still not there. I trust that I played the best I could and if it wasn't satisfactory enough for whoever the bandleader was to call me back a second time, I feel good I played the best I can do. If it wasn't what he's looking for, that's his choice. I never got bent out of shape or envious or jealous [losing a gig] because I knew I was going to practice, to try to find something else to do. I never got to that zone. I never got bitter or hostile or mad. I knew I had some notes that were waiting to be discovered. My job is to see if I can find them. You can't find them if you're angry, man."

Ron Carter Dear MilesCarter has been involved in jazz education for many years and it still gives him great pleasure. He's taught at other major jazz schools besides Julliard and was artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies at one time. He realizes that the changes in the music industry are drastic, but isn't sounding any alarms. The young men and women coming out today are familiar with the Internet. They know social media like Facebook and Twitter. They can produce their own CDs. They know about operations like Kickstarter or ArtistShare, where artists get the public to help them raise money for their productions. All those things are alien to a great many older musicians, but not to those coming onto the scene. "So they're not so much in the wind as people would like to think. They aren't at so much at a loss as to what to do," says Carter.

One thing remains the same as it did 50 years ago and more.

"They got to play," states Carter. "The issue is: Can they find someplace to make some gigs? That's still paramount to me. You got to find somewhere to play, man, to figure out what notes don't work. There was a time you could go from New York to Philadelphia, to Washington, DC, to Boston. Those circuits are gone. I'm concerned the players will not have the wherewithal to be able to make those gigs that are now available. I tell my students I used to play three sets a night and they are stunned by that possibility. But that's how we developed our own sound and our own vocabulary and figured out the best set of these notes to play, or those notes to play. I think they need to get that kind of brass-knuckle playing."

He says his best advice for students is "get on the bandstand and work it out for as long as the club will stay open. You got to get those miles on you, brother. There's not a shortcut for that." Jazz schools are thriving, which is a good thing, but "it's not the same as being in a nightclub being forced to be able to perform to a certain level night in and night out. Schools do what they do and that's not to say they are not productive and turning out some productive players. But they got to be in the pits, man, to find out what it's like to try to make a course and maintain an audience's attention while you're moving up there. It's a whole other mindset. Musicians today miss that pressure to have to deliver night in and night out. You got to do it every night, man, to try to find out what notes don't work. Can you find a better set and maintain the audience's interest in what you're trying to get across to them?"

Carter says the best musicians working today face difficulties. But challenges have to be met head-on. "It's hard for all of us. The industry is changing. The access to the music is changing. The places to play are changing. The internet has changed the way people get a chance to hear music. We're all facing those kinds of difficult times. If you want to survive, they've got to find ways to make it work for them. Look around and don't look for anyone to hand it to you."

Meanwhile, Carter himself continues to look for projects that can stimulate him. He has a working trio and quartet. He still gets called for major sideman gigs.

When he looks for new projects, "I've got to feel good about doing it. Not just because it's a project. One of the reasons I'm as active as I still am is I'm able to find projects that thrill me. So far I'm batting close to major league. I'm always looking for what the next possibilities are. Right now, I'm temporarily stumped. I've covered most of the ground as a leader that I can reasonably cover. I've done duos, solo records with just bass ... I've covered most of the ground I'm interested in now, but I'm always open to suggestions. So if you have any, now is the time to tell me."

Selected Discography

Ron Carter, Ron Carter's Great Big Band (Sunnyside, 2011)
Miles Davis, Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Volume 1 (Columbia, 2011)
Ron Carter, Dear Miles (Blue Note, 2007)
Ron Carter, The Golden Striker (Blue Note, 2003)
Ron Carter, Eight Plus (Dreyfuss, 2003)
Ron Carter, When Skies Are Grey (Blue Note, 2001)
Ron Carter, Orfeu (Blue Note, 1999)
Joe Henderson, Tetragon (OJC, 1995)
Jim Hall, Alone Together (Milestone, 1986)
Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Milestone Jazz Stars (Milestone, 1979)
Ron Carter, Piccolo (Milestone, 1977)
Horace Silver, Silver 'N Voices (Blue Note, 1976)
McCoy Tyner, Atlantis (Milestone, 1975)
Ron Carter, All Blues (CTI, 1973)
Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly (Atlantic, 1973)
Stanley Turrentine, Sugar (CTI, 1970)
Freddie Hubbard, Red Clay (Blue Note, 1970)
Charles Tolliver, Paper Man (Freedom, 1968)
Miles Davis, Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1967)
Ron Carter, Out Front (Prestige, 1966)
Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965)
Miles Davis, ESP (Columbia, 1965)
Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil (Blue Note, 1965)
Coleman Hawkins, The Hawk Relaxes (Prestige, 1961)
Eric Dolphy, Out There (Prestige, 1960)

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