102

Ron Carter: The Right Notes, Alright

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."
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