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For most of his 85 years, bassist Ron Carter has held firm to the beat and to his accumulated musical wisdom, sharing that wealth with generations of fellow players.
In late March, Ron Carter stood on the stage of Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club flanked by guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Donald Vega. They all wore dark blue blazers, crisp white shirts, matching blue-and silver striped ties and broad smiles. The group was beginning a six-night stand, their first date in nearly two years, owing to the pandemic. Within his Golden Striker Trio, which originally featured pianist Mulgrew Miller (who died in 2013), Carter works without a drummer or horns, holding down the beat while also often serving as a primary soloist. Even when playing a conventional walking bass line, he alters the voicings and toys with harmony, creates countermelodies and contrasting rhythms. During the course of his long and celebrated career, during which he has played on more than 2,000 recordings, including a mind-bending list of classics, Carter has bent the very jazz conventions he helped establish: His playing has always managed to be both rock-solid and searching, standard-bearing and exploratory. Ever since he arrived in New York in 1959, playing with the likes Randy Weston and Cannonball Adderley, through his five years with the Second Great Miles Davis Quintet, he has been at the center of action in the jazz world. One could construct a satisfying history of modern jazz largely by tracking the albums on which he has played, including pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Skyline, which won this year’s Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.Nearly 30 years ago, Miller organized a tribute concert for Carter at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall, a testament to both his vitality and influence. “Ron Carter isn’t dead,” Peter Watrous wrote in The New York Times, while reporting on the event, which was the sort of thing usually reserved for fading or deceased masters. “He isn’t ill. No major catastrophes have disturbed his life recently. His bass playing is at its usual level — extraordinary — and he picks his engagements as a leader and as a sideman not from financial need but from a desire to immerse himself in the best of the new music. At 57, Mr. Carter is just fine.”The same could be said of Carter now, at 85. For a May birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall, NBC newscaster Lester Holt was enlisted as emcee and Carter planned a program featuring his Golden Striker Trio as well as a quartet and octet. It was intended as less a victory lap than a statement from a musician still going strong, eager for challenges. And at that Blue Note show in March, Carter looked lean and healthy, wise but also hungry for each exchange with his bandmates. His only concession to age seemed to be the fact that he remained seated. His long fingers wereas nimble as ever along the neck of his bass. I spoke with him shortly after that gig, about the long arc of his career, and his ideas about leadership, rhythm and mutual understanding on the bandstand.At the Blue Note, when you segued from “You Are My Sunshine” to the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, I heard the similarity of melodic structures. It also reminded me of your history, beginning on cello while growing up in Detroit. What was that environment like? We’re going back a long time here. I’m from a family of six sisters, and another brother. So, there was not much outside environment, really, because we had it all at home. I didn’t go to a nightclub until I went to Rochester [on a full scholarship to the Eastman School of Music] and I started playing bass. But our home life was not culturally deprived. We just had enough other things to do, so that we didn’t sit around listening to music all day. My parents instilled a sense of honesty and well-being and productivity and love for one another, and that was our environment. I didn’t really know the scene.You were playing cello then, right?Yes, which is part of the process of getting where I ended up, I guess. Back then, I played only classical music.When did jazz enter your consciousness? When did you connect with that music?Probably my freshman year of college. I just happened to meet some African American musicians during my first semester in Rochester who were clearly wonderful jazz players. I wasn’t involved in their community, but they let me in. After that, I would go home for weekends and for semester breaks. My neighbor, who was a saxophonist, said, “Look, I’ve got this gig at the sorority house next weekend. Can you make it?” I said, “Well, I don’t know any of the tunes, or the process.” He said, “Well, I can give you some lead sheets if you can read music.” And of course I could read music. He sent the pianist by my house. And that was my first real exposure to the music, personally. We did three or four gigs at Wayne State University and on the waterfront for fraternities and sororities. And those were my first jazz gigs. For many classically trained players, such an immersion can be disorienting or off-putting. Was that true for you?No, I thought I belonged there. And I had no qualms or issues about it in my own head — Can I do this? or Why am I doing this? I just got down there and did it and made money to stay in school. And these guys were kind to me. They were generous.Did your life as a jazz listener follow this initiation as a player?Yes.What were the recordings that first turned your head around?I picked up the Modern Jazz Quartet album, Django. I enjoyed the clarity of all the instruments. I just thought the arrangements were so concise and beautiful. I heard all four parts all the time, and it worked. That fascinated me. And I heard “Blue Haze,” a blues in F. Miles Davis’ solo there moves perfectly with what Percy Heath and Art Blakey played. That impressed me.Your path toward jazz must have been partly directed by the social and political forces of the time. There wasn’t much opportunity for Black string player in classical music, was there?No, there wasn’t any. So that path was not readily available to me. That was made very clear to me. And I’m not sure that’s changed a whole lot since then. It is still an issue, even today. It’s appalling. I’m not sure the orchestra world has caught up to the broader changes in our society. No, it hasn’t. So, back then, you began gigging?I’d play till two o’clock in the morning and get the car, drive about a half hour back to the dorm in Rochester, get up in time for an eight o’clock music theory class. That was the process. I thought, OK, I can do that. I first understood who Ron Carter was by looking through the LPs in my college dorm and realizing just how many of them, if you flipped them over, had your name on them. I constructed my jazz history in part just by following your path. If I were your student, what would you tell me is the key to swinging in time through all those contexts, and to your instrument’s role?I’d say come hear my bands and find out. As different as they are — a duo with Russell Malone or a trio, or with Russell and Donald [Vega], or the quartet and octet for this Carnegie concert — they all present different examples of what I think swinging is. And you have to understand: We have never really codified a language about this — the musicians didn’t, anyway — so you have to hear it to know it.As I have understood the role of the bass, I thought I’ve always controlled the beat. I would say, “Well, he’s the bandleader, but I’m really leading the band.” And I’m comfortable with that kind of honest, contrary talk. The bandleader has got the biggest print to his name, but I’ve got the biggest notes. So, you get to see how important the bass is in indicating, ultimately, what the band does. And then when I say that, some leaders become offended because they are sure they’re the boss. And I explain, “Look, unless the bass player improves as you do, the band can’t go anywhere.” Did you feel that way in Miles Davis’ quintet?Well, I never said it out loud. But they understood, and that was enough for me. You’ve gone to great lengths to document your role as a bassist and its effect on other players.My next project for my publishing company is to compare the bossa nova bass lines from Brazilian players up to 1968, and their bossa bass lines from 1968 on, based on my records with Brazilian musicians, specifically with Jobim. I’m tracking how their lines changed based on what I’ve played. And I can only have an influence if I understand where the beat really is. Then, I can set up my lines to counteract rhythms that they’ve already heard me play for two choruses, to establish that I do know this tune right, I do know the form, I do know the changes. Then, I’ll do my own rhythms, based on my information from the band that I’ve been able assimilate from the first two choruses. That project reminds me of “Chartography — Reinvented Transcriptions,” where you analyzed five of your performances of “Autumn Leaves” with the Miles Davis Quartet between 1963 and 1967. That was illuminating. What got you started on this work?My hope is that the transcribing nerds will look at this as the real way to transcribe a chorus, because it shows you the choruses evolving. It shows how the band evolves with my changes. You know, I get a little frustrated when I see bass teachers assigning a student a bass line to play without giving them the real truth of the matter: Was it the first chorus of the tune? Was it the third take of the tune? What happened before? What did the band do under this new line?Are you saying that the bass line alone is not musical or meaningful without the context?It can’t be! A walking bass line, for instance, is its own story within a larger story. Having written the liner notes for many recordings, and having read so many of them, I fear that much of the context for music is getting lost in this download culture.That may well be true, and it would be a shame.You’ve worked with so many elemental drummers — Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, Jack DeJohnette, to name just a few. How do the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic relationships change with each of them?The biggest difference is how they tune the drums. Is there a nice, bright snare drum like Philly Joe Jones had — a really tight snare drum sound? What’s the pitch of the bass drum? Is he playing the 4/4 bass drum like Roy Haynes can do? What are the cymbals like? Are they ringing through, like Joe Morello with the early Dave Brubeck band? He’d hit one lick and it would last for four beats. Can I hear the hi hat? These are all the things that make drummers different to play with. One of my jobs is to listen for all of that and to figure out how to make it more fun for them to play with me.You’ve frequently talked and written about context, and about finding the right note in each one. What do you want musicians, especially younger ones, to understand about the context for their music?I say that when they go to play gigs, leave your ego at home and take a spare pair of ears. The ego makes hearing really difficult. Of course you hear yourself. But you need to hear a bigger scope of the music and even the events around you, whether it’s in a newspaper you read on the way, or someone in the band is playing a little different tonight or not feeling very good, whether the tunes are a little faster or slower. Bandleaders have a penchant for looking for something different every night. In Miles’ band, it seemed like every night “So What” got a little bit faster. I didn’t know whether we were being tested as to how fast we could play it or Miles was testing himself about how fast he could think. Stuff was going on all the time, musically, no matter the speed. We weren’t stepping back just because it was faster than last night.Was such sensitivity and openness the secret ingredient in that band?I don’t know about secrets, but we had such a high regard for each other’s point of view, and we looked out for each other, for where each of us were going, every night. That never wavered.In that band with Miles and in so many situations — for instance, your duets with Jim Hall — the line between composition and improvisation gets blurred. How do think of that relationship between those two processes?Anytime you’re creating something out of your head, like walking a bass line, that bass line must be so well-composed that it can stand by itself. And if it’s a drum solo, it can be well-played, but it has to describe a story itself and not just be a show of physical skill and coordination. Piano players, I envy those guys because they have a complete orchestra. I’ve only got one note — well, in theory, anyway. But the other side of that conversation is on the composer side. On an album like Etudes, you composed music that has a built-in capacity for mutation, right?Yes. When I write a song, I want a player to see my story in the format I presented it. But if they want this format to be a 3/4 instead of 4/4 because it fits their storyline in their heads, I’m not offended by that. As long as it works. Because they’re making a story out of my story. And my story becomes their story.At 85, you have played with nearly everyone. Still, is there anyone, living or dead, you wish you could step on the bandstand with?I wish I could have played with Bird — played with him as the player I am now, in my time. How would he have responded to this information from the back of the band, being as new to him as his stuff was to musicians in his band? I keep asking that question. I just want to know what Bird would’ve done with this kind of stuff. I saw what Miles did. Also, I’m still trying to get with Ahmad Jamal. He understands the importance of bass lines when he plays a piano. He really makes that part of his scheme. The Creator is going to make that one happen, I think.What do you hope the audience members who celebrate with you at Carnegie Hall realize about you and your music?I want them to see the width and breath of my live performances, all in one night. You can see me for a week at the Blue Note, you can see me with a quartet playing at Birdland or at a special concert at Merkin Hall. Here’s one night for you to see all these views of my view of clearly different musical styles, and gain an understanding of my intent in playing all that music.Is one of those intentions spiritual?Yes. At Carnegie, we will open with a hymnal and close with a hymnal. I just think it’s nice to acknowledge another force that makes this music possible.At the Blue Note, you talked about the past two years, when the pandemic forced you to stop touring. How did that affect your own spirit and your attitude about playing music?Well, it gave me a chance to be at home and to not be responsible for anything but me and my wife, basically. When you go to a club at night and you’re the bandleader, you have responsibility for a whole host of things, well beyond just the music, which of course you are ultimately responsible for. After a while, I couldn’t sleep at night. I understood that I was missing all that responsibility that I take graciously. When we got back to playing, it was a great relief. It has been a relief for us in the audience, too. You know, I got the chance to interview Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a while back, who of course is both a basketball legend and a true jazz lover. He mentioned that back in the day, you could play some ball.There may be some truth to that. I asked Kareem, “If the ’85 Lakers were a jazz quintet, what instrument would you play?” He said, “I’d be the bassist who soloed a lot.” Let me ask you the reverse question: If that Miles Davis quintet was a basketball team, what position would you play?Point guard. Because I’m always going to be the distributor. - Larry Blumenfeld