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."

"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?"



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