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Ron Carter

 

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Using Nothing But His Bass


When Warren Murchie of Global Bass informed me that he had arranged my recent interview with the great Ron Carter, my first reaction was -- FEAR. Ron, undeniably one of the most influential bassists in the world, has done so many interviews during this long career that he must be able to recommend some great conference call services. I ought to know, I had studied them all. I worried that Ron would be disinterested, and his responses laconic. I told Warren that I would rise to the challenge, and do a story about Ron like no other. I reasoned that it would be a labor of love to write about a man who has been an icon to thousands of musicians around the world -- with this writer being at the top of the list.  

Now more than ever, I truly believe that everyone has a destiny, and that all things, good and bad, happen for a reason. How else can one explain how Ron picked up the bass one day and ended up changing the world! Was it fate that Ron Carter would eventually make the acquaintance of Miles Davis and become a part of the illustrious quintet that gave us quite possibly the most celebrated, beloved music of our times? How else can we explain the fact that when Miles Davis brought his musicians together to record, everything fell into place so perfectly, as if it were truly meant to be -- even down to the studio chosen. Rudy Van Gelder's studio, nestled away in an undisclosed location in Englewood, New Jersey, became the place where the revolutionary music was to be forever documented into our hearts and minds. It was clear to me that it was fate that led me to interview a man I had all but worshiped for so many years.

As I write this article, in the background, someone is babbling about Madonna's new, controversial video, a video that is too violent to be shown on television. When asked, Madonna apparently stated that the purpose of the video was to "raise questions and open dialogue." Ron Carter accomplished this objective armed with only the revolutionary sounds of his bass. When I was a six-year old child, my Dad (a trumpet player who toured the world with Tito Puente), introduced me to the music of Miles, Tito, and Freddie Hubbard. The music alone raised the questions, and dialogue inevitably followed about true art, and the distinctive soul of an excellent musician. I distinctly remember staring at the photo of Ron Carter on the back of his LP entitled Peg Leg, which my Dad just happened to have lying around the house. With his pipe and beard, Ron looked so dignified, sort of like a college professor. And in truth, that is exactly what he is to so many. Ron's playing on the LP was quite scholarly indeed -- it was vintage Ron Carter. It was a primer on truly advanced upright bass playing. The fifths, major sixths, the funky double stops, the piccolo bass, the growling tone, and the low C's (courtesy of Ron's fingerboard extension), were all there for me to hear, absorb, and learn. I vividly remember, as a teenager, listening to Freddie Hubbard's great LP entitled Polar AC (produced by Creed Taylor). Ron absolutely knocked me out with his opening riff to the title track, outlining the D to D sus chord changes with style. "Naturally" was the first track on side 2 of the LP, and was arranged by Grammy Award winner Don Sebesky. Ron's bass sounded awesome, and when he played those low C's on his fingerboard extension towards the end of the verses, I knew I was hearing something special. Can you come up with more inspiring dialogue?

The truth is that we were all privileged to have had Ron Carter to lend us inspiration, but who inspired Ron? I asked Ron if there were any particular bassists to whom he listened when he starting out. He responded: "Primarily, no. I listened to J.J. Johnson and [baritone saxophonist] Cecil Payne. J.J. was a trombone player who was able to make the instrument do something other than slip and slide. He found a way to play all those notes, and all those intervals without going past the bell of his horn. Cecil Payne came up when you had Gerry Mulligan and Harry Carney all playing with the same basic sound. Cecil was able to find his own quality that's clearly a personal approach to the instrument as far as sonics are concerned."

You see, Ron learned the merits of developing a personal sound and style partly from his exposure to JJ and Cecil Payne. This is perhaps one of the most important lessons you can learn from Ron. It is critical to develop your own style regardless of what instrument you play. Be inspired from listening to others, but don't plagiarize. Innovate, don't imitate! It is the only way to have staying power.

Ron has a brand new CD entitled When Skies Are Grey. It is a classy, Latin influenced collection of music all anchored by Ron's bass mastery. According to Ron, arranger Bob Freedman played a big part in the tight focused sound of the CD. Ron has worked with Freedman since the 1970's (Freedman was the arranger on the Peg Leg LP in 1977). "He's a wonderful arranger", Ron acclaims, "he's worked with Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, just a wonderful arranger. I like the way he writes. I like the way he works. I like what he does."

Like all true innovators, Ron's mindset on When Skies Are Grey was not to compete with or copy the great Latin bands of today. "I wasn't trying to imitate guys like Tito Puente, because they do what they do with all those pieces much better than I can with a quartet. I was trying to acknowledge their presence on the Jazz scene, and have people go away feeling that if you don't have three violins, five trumpets, [and] six percussionists, you can still play the Latin beat."

Percussionist Steve Kroon, pianist Stephen Scott, and drummer Harvey Mason all added their unique styles and sound that make this record a wonderful piece.  I was surprised to find Harvey Mason on this CD (thinking that he was primarily a funk/R&B drummer). I voiced this to Ron who replied, "I often hear that comment that people are surprised to see Harvey in a Jazz setting, and it really surprises me, because I've always known Harvey as a jazz drummer, I don't know him through all the other music everyone seems to associate him with." 

All the material on When Skies Are Grey is strong, and the musical performances stellar. From the opening tune entitled "Loose Change", the Ron Carter touch is evident. Ron lays down the opening groove as only Ron can, incorporating major fifths played harmonically into the bass line. Besame Mucho is the second tune on the CD, but before you start thinking Julio Iglesias, think again. Bob Freedman's arrangement is really fresh and hip. My favorite tracks are Corcovado (which was written by Antonio Carlos Jobim) and Mi Tiempo, a Ron Carter composition. On Corcovado, Ron plays the melody, and Stephen Scott really embellishes with some nice chord voicings. Mi Tiempo is a Ron Carter extravaganza in which Ron is the catalyst for some great interaction between Steve Kroon and Harvey Mason. To sum it up it's all good.

As those of you who have followed his career already know, Ron has always been an innovator in regard to tone. He was the first bassist to really get that growling tone on the upright bass. I listened attentively to every aspect of When Skies Are Grey, and I noted that Ron's tone seemed a bit rounder and warmer on this particular outing. I wondered if he did anything different this time around when recording this CD. Ron replied, "As you know, when you make a record, a lot of things are out of your control. There are a lot of processes that take place after the recording is done that affect tone. There are about six processes that take place in the studio, and sometimes the engineers get it right, sometimes they don't. The bass sounds different every day, my hands feel different, but as far as the tone of the new CD, it's nothing that I'm consciously doing." 

In the studio Ron never uses an amplifier when recording his tracks. Critical to his beautiful sound are his hands. As everyone knows, that's the starting point for great bass sound. But in particular, Ron records his bass with a Neumann microphone. The instrument Ron used is the instrument that he has been playing since 1959. His bass is a Juzek, "whose parts were made in Czechoslovakia, and assembled in Germany before Germany became east and west, about 1910 or so. I have a fingerboard extension that I put on in the 1970's, probably the first extension of it's type, which now has become a standard in jazz. I use LaBella 7710's, which is a black nylon wound steel core string, and I've been using them for the last 12 years, and a David Gage (The Realist) bass pickup."

Looking to the future, I wanted to know Ron's views on Rap and Hip Hop music. Since the music industry has become such a melting pot, I wondered if there was a possibility of a future Hip Hop tinged to Ron Carter's musical offerings. "The language of a lot of the Rap stuff is pretty coarse for my age group. I don't appreciate some of the words and thoughts. If some of these rappers really want to become poets as they profess to be, they'd have people playing with them live to really affect the music." Ron further noted that "A Tribe called Quest and Dr. Dre know the jazz cats, they just haven't gotten around to feeling it essential to incorporate it into their music, especially live." One thing is for sure, although I currently do not own any Hip Hop CDs, if Dr. Dre hires Ron for an upcoming project, he's got my word that I'll buy it!

For your information, Ron is a degreed professional, with degrees from Eastman School of Music, and a Masters from the Manhattan School of Music. Ron has been teaching music at City College of New York for almost two decades. "I've been teaching full time for the past 19 years, at CCNY, City College of New York [at] 138th [Street] and Convent Avenue (212-650-5411). I teach four ensembles and seven bass students." When asked if he presently has any prodigies under his wing he replied, "They all show promise, how they do when they get out there is another story, but they all show promise."

In these times of hype and fads, it is easy to find a new "star", but increasingly difficult to find great music. We have game shows in which pretty faces are awarded record deals without having to pay their dues -- the dues every true musician must pay in order to reach a higher level. Ron Carter has paid his dues and as a result has lived and thrived in the worst of times. He is a role model for all -- black, white, whatever your ethnicity. He is proof positive that it is possible to make a living as a musician without selling your soul, "selling out", or trying to copy the flavor of the month dime a dozen bands with which we have been inundated of late.

However, it must be noted, that the music business itself does have its price. On a personal note, in the pursuit of "making it" in the music business, this writer has shelved a lot of the music and musicians that were once so important to me as a young optimistic beginner. Trying to make a name for myself and work in New York's unforgiving music seen can be overwhelming. Listening to Ron's new CD brought back all of the beautiful musical energy I once thrived upon. Ron is still here, right now, inspiring and enlightening and for this I must say "Thank You, Ron."



If you are serious about music, I strongly suggest picking up When Skies Are Grey. You will be listening to the most revered jazz bassist alive today -- the one and only Ron Carter. Make it your business to learn about him, you will truly enrich your life by doing so. 

On a sad note, one week before the recording of When Skies Are Grey, Ron Carter's wife passed away. It was something that I did not feel comfortable discussing with Ron at the time of the interview, but I think it is important that the readers of Global Bass send Ron their warm thoughts. Ron, the consummate professional, had to put aside his grief and head into the studio to make music. My deepest condolences to Ron and his entire family.

I would like to thank Ron Carter, Cem Kurosman, Marty Straub, and most of all, Warren Murchie for granting me this distinct honor.

Tony Senatore, March 22, 2001

Tony can be reached at tonysenatore@gmail.com

His website is http://www.senny.com/

 

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