Jazz Bassist Ron Carter: Helping Others Sound Their Best
Famed musician is a stand-up guy
The elevator to Ron Carter’s Upper West Side apartment literally opens into his spacious, multiroom spread. The first thing you see upon entering is the scuffed-white, hard-plastic carrying case that transports his mainstay bass. It stands in the foyer with a statuesque physicality&emdash;’the perfect welcome into the living space of jazz’s most preeminent and active bassist.
Carter has lived in New York since 1959. Since then, he’s been one of jazz’s most studied, forward-thinking, and adventurous bassists throughout a career that began with drummer Chico Hamilton and included a stellar six-year stint with Miles Davis in the trumpeter’s legendary ’60s quintet.
Today, Carter, 67, continues unabatedly with his brilliant jazz-meets-classical Nonet, his long-standing quartet, and a new trio project. Inarguably the most recorded bassist in recording history, Carter has appeared on an estimated 2,000 albums (including a surprising guest spot on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 hip-hop masterpiece The Low End Theory). He has released dozens of his own recordings, including a batch of recent discs: 2001’s When Skies Are Grey and last year’s The Golden Striker, both on Toshiba/Blue Note; the remarkable Eight Plus Nonet CD on the French label Dreyfus, with sessions dating back to the early ’90s; and Entre Amigos, a gorgeous Brazilian album with vocalist and guitarist Rosa Passos, on the Chesky label.
It’s my third visit in as many years to Carter’s aesthetically adorned home, part of which used to be his late wife’s private art gallery. The distinctive artwork she collected is still prominently displayed, including the dramatic brown/beige five-by-six-foot painting ’Slave Ship’ by Carol Byard; a bright orange and cerulean abstract piece that looks like a series of bass clefs in the shape of a chainsaw, by Detroit artist Al Loving; and a postmodern gray-painted tapestry of leather strips, punch-out holes, and tiny knick-knacks by Jack Whitten.
Carter excuses himself to finish up a private master class he’s teaching to Larry Grenadier, a young, highly esteemed jazz bassist who plays in pianist Brad Mehldau’s group and coleads the trio Fly. After the class, Carter, in a casual cranberry sweater, reemerges from a practice room with his pipe and sits at the dining-room table to talk jazz, first weighing in on his four-day Nonet gig at Birdland in mid-December. On opening night Carter, who usually performs with stoic visage, smiled throughout as he and his group’four cellists (Kermit Moore, Zoe Hassman, Carol Buch, and Dorothy Lawson), a four-man rhythm section (pianist Stephen Scott, percussionist Steve Kroon, bassist Leon Maleson, and drummer Payton Crossley), and the leader on piccolo bass’creatively navigated the compositions and arrangements he had finessed for the date.
Cellists are a rarity in jazz, but four cellos in one group? It’s easily a jazz anomaly. A decade ago, Carter told me that the Nonet was the perfect workshop to explore new realms of composition. ’I love the sound of the cellos, which are sympathetic to the jazz language,’ he said. ’Whatever the arrangement, the cellos can play anything. Give the cellists the right notes and chords and the results are mind-boggling. Even if I took out the other instruments’ parts, the four cellos could stand on their own.’
Today Carter expounds on the role of the cello, which was his first instrument as a child in Michigan, in the jazz realm. ’Violins are bright, and violas can’t penetrate other sounds around them,’ he says. ’Cellos have the range of the violin, the warmth of the viola, and the ability to make their presence heard in a reasonably sized ensemble without a lot of miking.’
When he initially dreamed of the group, a classical music friend tried to dissuade him from attempting to form such a nonet. ’This guy told me that you can’t write jazz for strings because they can’t play it,’ Carter says. ’I said, what? In New York? I was confident I could find cellists who knew about Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and who went to jazz clubs. That convinced me to find the right combination of notes to write and the right combination of players to perform them. I knew we could get this done, and we did.’
As for the Birdland performance, Carter says that little was left to happenstance. ’With the Nonet, there’s so much going on and I’m responsible for so much more,’ he says. ’These are all my arrangements. I write them at home, I copy the score for each member, and we actually rehearse. By the second or third night of a gig, the cellists understand that I mean those notes and we start to come together. Basically, I’m responsible for everything they play. It’s great having eight people on stage with you. There are more voices, more conversations, more strange things happening.’
While there are ample spaces within the music for improvisation, Carter notes that he has built in a sense of routine that he doesn’t apply with his smaller groups. The Nonet, he says, requires a different mind-set. For example, he learned by experience to keep the set lists the same each night. ’When I first started working with the Nonet, I’d notice that we’d have off nights,’ he explains. ’It took me awhile to understand you can’t change the program and have the cellists feel all right about that. They’re used to playing chamber music. They performed much better when they knew the routine. They jumped right in to the music then.’
Still, Carter throws curves. ’Everyone in the group has to look to me for the cues,’ he says. ’I may cut choruses in half or extend parts. I keep the players flexible so they can adapt to sudden changes within the score. They get used to the surprises. The more they do this the more the music takes on a different kind of bounce.’
At Birdland, Carter was on the far left of the stage with his piccolo bass, positioned in front of the rhythm section and flanking the cellists who were seated behind their scores in the front row. He conducted the show, signaling on the first piece for the swing part to kick in after a string prelude. The cellists provided color and rhythm; the rhythm section drove the beat, especially on the funk-tinged, upbeat ’El Rompe.’ Throughout the evening, with Maleson holding down the bottom beat, Carter was free to explore the sonic potential of his piccolo bass, taking lush pizzicato excursions, dialoguing with the bass and bowing up a gritty storm with a rock sensibility. The beauty of the evening was a lush rendering of Leon Russell’s pop ballad ’Song for You.’
At the close of the set, Carter beamed.
After it, Lawson, also a member of the hip, eclectic New York string quartet Ethel, was equally pleased with the performance. ’It’s such a great musical experience working with Ron,’ says Lawson, who has been a member of the Nonet for five years. ’This is an opportunity to sit in with one of the best. He has so much integrity. I love the fact that this band is so bass heavy. I love the introspection and the frenzy in the pieces. Musically, this is as satisfying as anything I do.’
Lawson also jokingly adds that it was great being prominently placed at the front of the stage. ’As cellists, we’re usually just the girls in the back.’
That’s most often the case with the bass, too, a situation Carter is all too familiar with. In fact, his desire to be visible inspired him to play the piccolo bass, an instrument that’s half the size of a full bass and tuned one fourth higher (C G D A). ’My three-quarter bass is too big to be in front of the stage,’ he says. ’I was looking for an instrument that would physically place me in front of the band so that if someone walked in the club they’d know immediately who the leader was.’
When told that he’s considered the elder statesman of jazz bass, Carter smiles and says, ’Well, I guess that’s true. I actually just signed up to get a permanent AARP card. I’m a member forever now.’
But it’s not just age that gives him renown. He’s a complete bass player, equally adept at playing rhythm and melody lines. He’s also a pioneer of exploring the different roles of the bass beyond its beat-keeping duty.
In 1994, he played five evenings at the Montreal Jazz Festival at the intimate 400-seat Salle du Gesu. Each night he was showcased in a different instrumental context, including solo, duo, trio, and nonet. His solo set was like a bass clinic. Carter opened the show with a bluesy melody, plucking his upright’s strings as a way of demonstrating how to cruise into a fat, bouncy groove.
After noting that one of a jazz bass player’s jobs is to play the meter behind the groove, he experimented with different time structures, moving from blues riffs to walking bass lines. He introduced different techniques, from pizzicato runs bubbling up a syncopated rhythm to fingernail scratches conjuring up eerie voicings. Then he showed how beautifully a bass can play a melody by sketching a stunning rendition of the Johnny Green classic ’Body and Soul.’
Today he’s adamant that jazz bassists need to pay more attention to the potential of their instrument. ’Most bass players have missed the boat,’ insists Carter. ’They’ve got to set aside the idea that playing time is the focal role of the bass. Bassists play like snakes in the grass during the time sections. But when it’s a solo opportunity, it’s as if a light goes on over their heads. They get enthusiastic all of a sudden. But after the solo is over, the light goes out and they go back to hiding. Now why is that? I tell students that they’re missing out on a lot of fun discovering new melodies to assist the band to play differently.
’I tell them that one of the greatest pleasures I have on bass is playing a line that will make the saxophonist play a line he wouldn’t have thought of if I hadn’t set him into that direction.’
Carter says that just waiting for a bass-solo spot is a dead end. ’I’d rather watch CNN than do that,’ he says. ’If I don’t solo for a week, I’m cool. There’s plenty of other creative things to do. You can play a countermelody in quarter notes, you can make a tune get tense or show new flavors, you can go from swing to bossa nova to Latin. You can do whatever you want instead of being dormant.’
He speaks highly of Grenadier, who has sought out his wisdom in the last several months. ’Larry is a fine young bassist, but he’s developed some bad habits that take a while to shed. I’ve given him pointers on how to hold the bass better so that he doesn’t get so tired by the end of an evening. He was playing the bass straight up. I told him to tilt it back 25 degrees so that it can rest on his body.’
Both Grenadier and Carter have busy schedules, but they finally hooked up. ’Larry was determined,’ Carter says. ’But I told him we’d have to do more than just one session. The bass is more complicated than that. Before he first came over, I asked him to write down 15 things that he wanted to work on. Then I told him to subtract five. The ten remaining areas are what we’re focusing on.’
They’ve worked on harmony and theory, leading tones, harmonic resolution of notes, and hand coordination.
In an email note sent before he tromped off to Europe on tour, Grenadier wrote, ’Ron is a master. He’s an excellent teacher who is able to verbalize the most abstract concepts. His sound, time feel, bass-line construction, and overall knowledge of the bass’ function in an ensemble have been an inspiration to me since I began playing the instrument.’ Grenadier was such a fan for so long that he was initially too intimidated to ask Carter for lessons. But, he noted, ’I decided to take the plunge a couple of months ago. I wish now that I had when I first moved to New York. There were so many things I wanted to learn from him, but mostly I was intrigued by his overall ease of playing and his ability to put the music first, giving the music exactly what it needed.’
Bassists aren’t the only jazz musicians who speak highly of Carter. Drummer Lewis Nash, who has played with him since 1984, calls him the Beacon. ’That’s my nickname for Ron because he stands so high physically (he’s easy to spot in a crowded room, airport, or train station when on tour) as well as artistically above the field,’ says Nash. ’Ron has been a mentor, a brother, a father, a teacher, a friend. I’ve learned a lot about playing drums from him. We’ve talked about drum tuning related to the sound of his bass. I became more conscious of the tone of my tom toms and how that could wipe out his bass notes. I learned how to make adjustments to allow his notes to flow freely.’
Playing with Carter in the rhythm section has also opened Nash’s ears to new possibilities. ’Ron is the type of bass player who doesn’t force his view. He listens intently. I’ll play a rhythmic figure and he repeats it with a different twist during the course of a walking bass line. That shows me that he’s always in the moment, playfully manipulating the pulse of the music. Ron likes to challenge others as well as himself. He’s been playing the same tunes for years, but he still finds something fresh. He’s always listening, always searching for the best notes.’
For The Golden Striker, Carter formed a new trio with pianist Mulgrew Miller and guitarist Russell Malone. He knew the project would be a challenge. The music was complicated and the setting was difficult because of the absence of drums and a conductor. But Carter was confident that Malone and Miller could handle the demands of the date, especially since he had previously worked with both on their individual recordings. ’Russell and Mulgrew were the guys I wanted to play with on this album,’ he says, ’but first I wanted to make sure they were up for what I had in mind.’
Miller and Malone proved to be a fine fit. ’I want to keep exploring the music with them,’ says Carter, who recently went to Japan with the trio and has several dates with it throughout the year. Malone is excited by the possibilities. ’The project was very challenging,’ he says. ’But any time I play with Ron, I walk away a better musician. He never allows you to play it safe. He won’t allow you to rely on patterns or riffs or licks. He throws curves. He’s never self-indulgent and always interactive.’
One of Malone’s big lessons from Carter is how important it is for all band members to listen carefully to what the bassist is playing. ’Some jazz artists think of the bassist and drummer as session guys,’ says Malone. ’But the band is only as good as its bass player. After spending time with Ron, I’ve had to rethink how the bass functions in a band.’
He pauses, then adds, ’Now that Ray Brown is gone, Ron is the most important bassist in jazz.’
So what’s up the sleeve of the music’s foremost bass player? Carter says no major project is on the front burner at the moment. No record is in the works, but he’ll be touring with the new trio and his quartet, which features pianist Stephen Scott, percussionist Steven Kroon, and drummer Payton Crossley. He says he’d welcome hooking back up with A Tribe Called Quest now that they’ve reformed as a band, and he would love to get the opportunity to tour the Nonet, but that’s unlikely because of the prohibitive cost of taking a big band on the road. But that doesn’t bother him. ’I’m doing fine,’ he says. ’I have over 80 records under my own name. I’m not in a hurry.’
Still, Carter says he has plenty of ideas brewing. ’Maybe it’s time to work on a live project with the trio. Or maybe it’s time to write some new quartet material,’ he muses. ’And recently I got a call from a DJ who’s interested in taking some hip-hop music to another level. If he’s interested in elevating the music to a new level, I’m more than willing to talk about how to make it happen.
’I’m ready to paint new canvases.’
WHAT RON CARTER PLAYS
Ron Carter’s primary bass is a three-quarter’size Juzek upright acoustic, circa 1910. ’According to someone who researched it, the parts were made in Czechoslovakia,’ says Carter. ’They were then shipped to Germany for assembly.’ He uses LaBella strings (7700 series) that are black nylon wound with steel cores. He notes, ’Since 1971, I’ve been using an extension that goes down to low C. I was one of the first guys to do this.’
The front line instrument of his Nonet band, Carter’s piccolo bass is a French Tyrolean that was made in 1890. It is half the size of a full bass and is tuned one fourth higher than a rhythm section upright. He bought it in a shop in Cincinnati after using a piccolo bass that Fred Lyman, a New Jersey instrument maker, had built for him. The Tyrolean bass was originally a three-string instrument that had been modified to a four-string some time before Carter purchased it. ’This one is older and has a more mature sound because of its age,’ he says. ’Because of the higher tuning, it didn’t settle for two years, but now it has a nice warm tone.’
To amplify it, Carter uses a David Gage Realist pickup, and a control box designed by electric bass maker Roger Sadowsky. ’I didn’t want to have to keep turning around to fiddle with the amp during a performance,’ Carter says, ’so Roger made me this control box that fits between the body and fingerboard by harmonic G. It has treble and bass controls and allows me to vary the volume.’ He uses a Flite bass cabinet with Gallien-Krueger RB III amplifier head.
While he owns French-bass’style wooden bows, Carter is hooked on a Carbow he tried out four years ago. ’A couple guys from France wanted to know if I’d be interested in trying a carbon-fiber bow,’ Carter says. ’It’s fantastic. First off, it’s indestructible. But it also has a fabulous balance. Since I have nylon wound strings, I have nylon hair on the bow. The sound is great. It’s what I had been looking for.’