by:Mike Doherty (nationalpost.com)
Every die-hard music fan knows the thrill of discovering an exciting new album at a record store. But for Ron Carter, who this month was awarded the Montreal Jazz Festival’s Miles Davis Prize for lifetime achievement, the thrill is rather particular.
According to the bassist, “There have been times when I’ve come across a record, saying, ‘Man, who are these guys? They sound great! … Oh, that’s me!’ ”
By his own reckoning, Carter has appeared on more than 2,000 albums across a 52-year career. Even if his name should be unfamiliar, you’ve likely heard his playing: besides anchoring Miles Davis’s great 1960s quintet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams, he has accompanied a flabbergasting list of musicians, from soul queen Aretha Franklin to jazz-loving hip hop crew A Tribe Called Quest, from Bette Midler to Paul Simon. And then there are his own recordings as a leader, which range from classical cello concerti to electric bass-driven fusion to straight-ahead jazz to … well, you get the idea.
The lithe 75-year-old native of Ferndale, Mich., has a reputation for not suffering fools (at all), and he assents rather gruffly to an interview at the Montreal Jazz Festival’s offices on the afternoon of a performance. But as he settles into conversation, it’s clear the master bassist has a questing intelligence and an open mind; he professes a servant’s dedication to the music he makes.
Unlike many star bassists, Carter is reluctant to push himself into the foreground — “If I don’t solo for a week, that’s fine with me, man,” he says. No matter what the session, he adapts his playing to the music’s style and the band’s overall sound. That said, he’s always recognizable by his rich, warm tone and his resolute rhythmic approach, whether he’s swinging mightily or laying down an indelible groove. He’s never truly playing second fiddle, instead looking, he says, to “make [a] band follow my musical choices and buy into my concept of a bigger picture.”
Carter’s first career goal as a musician was to join a symphony orchestra. At 11, he started playing the cello, and at 18, he picked up the less-popular bass, believing it would help him find his niche. But by 1959, as an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., he had discovered that the race barrier in classical music was too great, so he started playing jazz. Gigs with adventurous bandleaders such as Eric Dolphy and drummer Chico Hamilton led to his being hired, in 1963, by Miles Davis, as part of what Carter calls a “laboratory band” full of experimentation, with the trumpeter as chief chemist.
The music they played together on albums such as Nefertiti and Miles Smiles was complex, but Carter remembers it as “fun” and shot through with humour — a quality in music he values highly. In 1968, he quit the band to spend more time with his children; setting touring aside, he ramped up his studio work to heroic levels.
His reputation was such that he could drive negotiations, even with stars: reluctant to miss a Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier boxing match in order to play a session on Paul Simon’s self-titled 1972 album, he told the singer, “‘Paul, I have to go to the fight, man.’ He said, ‘What would it cost you to miss the fight?’ ” Carter named a price. “He said, ‘OK, we can do that.’ I said, ‘What time?’ It wasn’t complicated. Nice man.”
Even if the money is right for a session, Carter needs to feel the music is worthwhile. When rapper Q-Tip asked him to play on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 album Low-End Theory, he was skeptical about hip hop’s prevalent drug references and swearing. “I didn’t want to be appearing to endorse that kind of language on a music project,” he says. In the studio, he asked Q-Tip to read his lyrics (or what Carter calls his “poem”) so he could determine the rapper’s “intent” before committing to playing.
When assembling his own bands, Carter looks for players who are accomplished but feel they can still improve. “Does he think that he’s at the top of his game when he joins my band? My job is to get him past where he thinks he’s the best.” Carter holds himself to the same standards.
He finds them harder to reach when he’s on tour, as difficulties involved in getting a double bass on an airplane post-9/11 have forced him to leave behind his custom-fitted 1910 instrument and rent what he calls a “bass du jour.”
“My first concern is that I’m 6-foot-4,” he says. “If I get one tall enough for me, my job is to make it work — [audiences] should not know that it’s not my fiddle.”
In his trio’s performance for a densely packed audience at Montreal’s Club Soda, on the night he receives his award, Carter makes his bass du jour sing, whether playing spidery runs, quoting Bach, or sliding playfully up and down the fretboard. The crowd meets his most delicate touches with beguiled silence. When asked to give a speech, he simply declares, “Wherever Miles is now, he’s wanting to know when I’m going to get back to playing the bass.”
Carter isn’t one for being “flowery,” he says at the Médiathèque — it’s enough for him to be in the company of former winners such as Hancock, Shorter and fellow bassist Stanley Clarke. “I think that’s a good bunch of guys to be associated with, even if it’s in court on a traffic ticket.”
Clearly a lifetime achievement award isn’t going to make him rest on his laurels. Having recently released his first big-band record as a leader — the exuberantly eclectic Ron Carter’s Great Big Band — he’s now planning to ask Roberta Flack to reprise their 1969 collaboration, as heard on her album First Take. “It’s kind of out of her realm right now,” he admits, but “it’s been 40 years; let’s try that sucker again.”
Otherwise, he’ll keep improvising, ready to steer whatever bass he may be playing in a new direction, proud of his accomplishments but nonetheless preaching humility.
“This gift we have is not coming from General Motors or General Foods,” he says. “It’s not coming from the local health food store; it’s coming from a much greater power than that. I have always recognized that there’s something bigger in play than me. I’m just the results of someone else’s presence, you know. And to play with that frame of reference makes me even more open to whatever suggestions come in.”