Sunday, August 21, 2016


Ron Carter
The jazz bassist Ron Carter, 79, is fifty plus years into his career, and he’s still turning out great jazz music. In June, High Note Records released “Chemistry,” Carter’s sixth duo recording with tenor saxophonist Houston Person. “Chemistry” is the duo’s sweetest session yet. Carter is of excellence form on every cut accompanying Person. Last year, Carter put out another gem “My Personal Songbook Ron Carter and The WDR Big Band”. On that album, Carter is the centerpiece, guiding the WDR to extraordinary realms musically. Getting nothing short of the best from his bandmates is just one of Carter’s gifts.

One of Carter’s accomplishments is having played with nearly every major jazz musician under the sun the past five decades, including Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, and of course Miles Davis’s highly touted quintet. Listen carefully to the recordings the quintet made you’d have to acknowledge Carter was the soul of that group. Carter has played on a whopping 2,200 albums as a sideman—surely that’s a world record --, and some of Carter’s albums as a leader are classics. 

Interviewing Carter has been an item on I Dig Jazz’s bucket list for some time. That item was deleted from the list a few weeks ago when Carter talked with IDJ via telephone after he returned home from touring Europe. Carter talked about what fuels him at this golden stage of his career, if Davis’s quintet was the greatest band he’s been a member of, and why he’s nervous as hell about being the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival’s artist-in-residence.

At this stage of your career, what keeps you inspired?  
I play every night. And I try to get better. My job is to make the person I’m playing with want to hire me when they come back to town. That’s a big thing for a musician in my age category.

I asked that question because I recently listened to Chemistry, the duo album you co-led with tenor saxophonist Houston Person-
That’s a great record, man.

It's one of the best I've heard so far this year.
All the music was one take with just two guys making some music. Houston is a great, great player. I get upset that his name isn't mentioned among those very important saxophone players in the history of the music. He belongs up there, man.

You've played with every major jazz musician under the sun from Miles Davis to Eric Dolphy. Is there a musician on your bucket list that you want to collaborate with?
Years ago, when I was getting into this business so to speak, I did an interview with a magazine whose title I forget, but they asked me did I have a list of musicians I wanted to play with before I stopped playing. Well, I explained to them that I don't have an ending set to my career, but I do have a list. On this list, these are the names and to this day I've played with all of them but [pianist] Ahmad Jamal. I was told that he’s retired now, so I have to try to track him down, and make him play with me in his house for one set. One tune.

What is it about Jamal that makes you want to collaborate with him?
He's one of the early piano players that allowed the bass player to be in charge of how the music sounded. There would be piano players along the way don't misunderstand me, but he allowed the bass player to call the shots. That’s very important to the development of the music and the bassist. So I want to see what the old man has to offer [laughs].

Well, I hope that collaboration happens.
If it does, you'll be the second person to know. I'll be the first.

Much has been written about Miles Davis's second quintet, which is regarded as one of the greatest jazz quintets of all times. Was that the greatest band that you’ve played in?
I have to say this out loud. I made over 2,200 CDs. That's 2,200 groups I've played with. And that's about 2,200 groups that had a choice of hiring a different bass player than me. I may not have been their first choice. Having said that those other groups to feel my presence was essential to their music whether I was the first call or the 19th call they're all important to me. They all offered me a different view of music. A different level of responsibility, and of course a different way of learning how best to make the bass be a part of those musical propositions, musical attempts at a sound that they wanted to hear.

So if I say that Miles's band is the best band, that means the other people were half-stepping, and I don't mean that at all. If I were talking to someone else, I would ask them, who was the best band they played with just to see how they would respond to that kind of question. Those who I know and trust would have to mumble for about a half hour, and I'd have to let it go.

Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock,  and Wayne Shorter moved into jazz fusion. Why didn’t you follow suit?
Three things were happening during that time. One, I was starting to get really active in the New York recording scene, and I was helping my wife raised two kids in New York. At that time, the education system there were striking every year with people complaining about the lack of equal education for the African-American kids who were in the 4th and 5th grades. Therefore there were a lot of teacher strikes in the early 60s. 

I didn’t think it was fair for me to be working in California while my wife was scuffling, trying to work out where the kids could go while the strikes were going on. Number two, I finally started to get an understanding of how a bass could work in a musical organization. I learned all that stuff working with Miles and of course freelancing. That kind of crystalized the magnitude of the bassist influence in the music of that moment. Number three, I was doing pretty good, and I wanted to see if I could live and play without being on the road so much.

Who was the bass player that had the biggest influence on you that you wanted to play like?
Well, none at all. I was influenced most by J.J. Johnson, who I played with a few times, and I was amazed that he could find all of those notes with that kind of fluidity and not go past the bell of the trombone. And there was Cecil Payne when he was with Randy Weston as I was for over a year when I came to New York. 

Cecil played the same horn as the major baritone players Harry Carney, Jerry Mulligan, and Pepper Adams. Yet, Cecil found his own sound that was different than those other guys. I thought if I could conceptualize how the bass has its distinct sound, and to have the facility that J.J. Johnson had on trombone maybe I could stumble on to something not just stumble around looking for the right notes.

How did being from Detroit help shape you musically during your formative years?
I was exposed to all the classical players in Detroit, and I didn't get to the Detroit jazz scene basically until I came home for summer vacation from college. I was working in Rochester, New York as a bass player in a house band. Outside Rochester they had a club called the Ridgecrest Inn a lady would book single acts and play a weekend or a week at this club, and I was in the house band.

I didn't get on the jazz scene in terms of going to the clubs and playing somewhere until I returned to Detroit in 1959. I would come home for vacations and because no one recognized me as being a jazz player I didn't make any gigs. I wasn't called for the jam sessions, or I couldn't sit in with anybody who was in town, and that was okay because I understood the pecking order. If guys don't know you all you can do is buy a ham sandwich and go home.

At some point, that changed, and jazz became your focal point.
Yes, that was because the classical world at that time was not ready to accept an African-American in their orchestras. I was told that twice before I got to age twenty. I believed them the second time. Any group that refuses a talent in their company is missing something whether it's me as a black guy or someone raised in Japan or somewhere else that is not the normal looking person in the orchestra.

You've played the Detroit Jazz Festival many times. What does it mean to you to return this time around as artist-in-residence?
I can't believe that they picked a bass player to do that. Bass players traditionally are kind of the guy hiding behind the palm tree in the band. You know, all you see is the top of his scroll and maybe his glasses and shoes. To have this guy come in front of the bandstand and be in charge is quite an honor and I'm thrilled to be thought of as a guy who can handle this kind of a situation. I’ll do my best.

You've played jazz festivals the world over. How does the Detroit Jazz Fest compare to other major jazz festivals?
Well, it's a weird question because I go to these festivals on the road so to speak, and I'm there just for the festival. I have no personal connection with the environment, you know? Maybe some friends come who I've seen at the same festival five years ago, but with the Detroit jazz fest there’s the more personal connection in that I graduated from Cass Tech, and I expect to see people I know from 1955 who will come to the festival who I will see for the first time since graduation day. 

The other festivals don't offer me that excitement to see people I haven't seen in forty, fifty years. The home I grew up in is still standing in Ferndale. Detroit has that personal connection for me. The Detroit Jazz Festival is a really heart pounding festival for me because I expect to be almost too excited to play, but I'll work it out.

For an up-and-coming jazz musician wanting to have the type of extraordinary career that you've had, the successes and accomplishments that you've had being on 2,000 records-
2, 220, get it right. I'm just teasing you now but go ahead [laughs].

What advice would you give?
I'd tell him, or her first of all get a teacher because music is really getting complicated. Learn where the notes are on the instrument. It's important to have that skill level. It's not enough to be talented and enthusiastic. 

The second thing is to understand the more visible you are, the more active you are, the more you play with different groups, the more complete you become in your concept. You can see how other groups work. How they keep their band members. How their library is, who writes the music. 

The third thing I think that's important is to understand that there is a chance to play wonderful music every night in the jazz band. Look forward to that as I still do.

That's a great answer.
I've been working on that answer for 60 years. I got it right I think.

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