An Extra Breath of Air:” A Conversation with Ron Carter


I first met Ron Carter backstage at New York’s Blue Note, before a January 2013 show with Bill and saxophonist Donald Harrison Junior. The occasion was a performance of the music on Donald’s Heroes record, featuring and honoring his musical heroes Cobham and Carter. Donald Harrison is the inspiration for two of the principal characters in HBO’s Treme series, as well as being Big Chief of the Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group.


Even the casual jazz fan will have heard Ron Carter’s name. He’s appeared on over 2,000 recordings, the most-recorded jazz bassist ever. There’s not much debate that he is the best in the world, Bill acknowledges that backstage, though both he and Ron resist the idea of grading or comparing musicians. While Ron flirted briefly with an electric bass, he is a diehard double-bassist, the large acoustic instrument also known as stand-up bass.



There are considered to be two great Miles Davis quintets. Ron was a member of the second, along with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams. He joined in 1963, appearing on Seven Steps to Heaven and the follow-up E.S.P. Like Bill, he is a prolific sideman, playing with Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, a who’s who of jazz over the years. He was honored in 2010 with France’s Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and elected to the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 2012.



I called Ron for insights on his decades-long collaborations with Bill as bass-percussion partners. He was the generous, good-humored maestro seen on countless stages in every corner of the planet. 


GRUBER: Do you recall your first impression of Bill?

CARTER: In a studio, there’s not much of an impression. It’s kind of already tuned for you, they are already set up for the recording. You want to see a guy in a different kind of environment. I heard him playing somewhere in town and I was pleased with how he tuned his drums in a live situation. I kind of judge how a guy plays or how I enjoy listening to him play by how he tunes the drums. Which allows the bass player an extra breath of air when the bass drum is tuned correctly and the snare drum is the correct brightness and the tom-toms are not tuned in between pitches and stuff like that. He is really aware of how the drum sound is so important to not just his sound but to the sound of the bass player and the band.
GRUBER: You played on E.S.P. Bill believes that was the first true jazz fusion album. Does the term fusion mean anything to you? Does it reflect anything important happening in music at that time?
CARTER: I’m not sure fusion is the best word, but it describes the mindset of some of those guys who were trying to combine the electronic stuff with the jazz community. In any event their presence and there not being so strong an industry left a lot of things for the jazz players to consider. Among them, trying to make sure that the sound in the club was always good. And two, when you had a good gig, making sure that the band sounds as good live as it sounds on the record. They brought that to the community of jazz, and I certainly appreciate that insistence that the sound be as near perfect as possible, rather than accepting it’s a jazz club so it can’t be all right.
GRUBER: Is that important to you, the venue that you play in, do you have some favorite clubs where you feel better performing, or once you are in your space that has the minimum physical requirements, does it not matter to you what club you are in?
CARTER: By and large it really doesn’t matter. What I try to do, Brian, is to try to have the sound guys spend the whole week, spend the whole night. Club owners try to save money by having the sound guy do the opening night and maybe one night mid-week. In the meantime, the band sound changes, the band gets warmed up, they get more familiar with the room, the audience goes from a full house to a half a house, the piano needs to be retuned; so many factors that change after opening night that the band and the house need to have someone who can constantly monitor the sound as the band changes and as the room changes. Clubs now are starting to understand that’s important not just to the band but to the customers who come, not just opening night, not just the opening set, but the second set of the third night or the last night. They want the band to sound good each night and they want that sound to represent just as good as what they hear in their homes. They realize that is important for their clientele.
GRUBER: When you do a week or several shows in a venue, do you have a process or an outlook as to how you want to use each of those days differently?
CARTER: Interesting. Last year, in Detroit, I worked four nights with four different groups, a nonet, big band, quartet, trio, presented four different views of the music. When I do one week at a club, say Catalina in California, I have a program I present to the band during the course of the sound check. An order of two sets if it’s a two-set night. They are never guessing what the tune is for the night. Plan a story for two 75-minute sets; the band knows my process for the week. Our job, their job, my job is to develop the storyline. Think what they did not do right this night, because they have four chances to get it right for the next four nights.
GRUBER: You have an esteemed history of teaching in the academic world and in a variety of venues. Do you enjoy teaching?
CARTER: Absolutely.
GRUBER: What do you like about it?
CARTER: Watching students grow under my assistance, how the bass has a voice, how they can develop their own voice on this bass, how to maintain their instrument, how to pick the right strings, make the bass sound as you want it to sound, to understand how the bass sound works as a physicist, as a sound box, how hard to play the strings, where to play them, these kinds of details. I enjoy teaching them because most kids, no one stops to tells them. To have kids start with me in this process and watch them understand, which opens up other avenues for them, is quite a joy for me.
Any teacher who wants to teach has ideas they want to propagate to somebody else besides their grandmother. They want to have students that can take this idea, this propagandized view and develop it somewhere else. Secondly, teachers, a lot of them don’t really have an understanding of how to teach, what to teach. I have that kind of skill level so I don’t mind using it if I have the time. 
 – Ibid, Blue Note interview with Ron Carter.
 GRUBER: Is there a unique Ron Carter approach to the instrument?

CARTER: You have to ask those kids!
GRUBER: What did you learn from Miles as a bandleader?
CARTER: (Long pause) How important tempo is. And how to trust the input of the guys who I am surrounding myself with. If you hired those guys, let them do what they do, you know? Watch what they do, listen to what they do, see how they develop an idea, how do they remember from night to night what didn’t work and try to work on a better approach to this particular chord, or this particular tune, or this particular set of changes; to watch that take place and be responsible for some of that is a great thing to be a part of. One the great things about being a bandleader is that shared responsibility to get better every night.
Miles habitually walked offstage to let him solo. Coltrane, alone and under the spotlight, had to strengthen his language. Coltrane joked that Davis gave him little guidance. Responding to a question about whether Miles had specifically told him to play as far out as he could, Coltrane responded, “Miles? Tell me something? That’s a good one!” 
 – Ratliff, Ben. Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2007. Kindle Edition, location 563
GRUBER: Did you spend much time with Miles offstage?
CARTER: No, he lived in my neighborhood for a while on 77th Street. I would go by occasionally but we didn’t really hang out much past the gigs.
GRUBER: Were you a fan of Mahavishnu Orchestra? Do you recall your initial impressions of their music?
CARTER: I am interested in any kind of music. With that specific band, the volume was so loud that the bass sounded like under audio-wise, didn’t have the same kind of presence. I didn’t appreciate that but I enjoyed listening to the music. Bill was a part of a wave of musicians in that era who made jazz fusion much more viable with his presence.
I mention Mahavishnu bassist Rick Laird’s claim that his hearing was shot after performing in front ofthose massive speakers – and Bill’s 38-inch gong – which draws a hearty laugh from Ron.
GRUBER: What motivated you to want to play and record with Bill over the years?
CARTER: Great drum sound; drums are pitched in the level of intonation that allows the bass range to be audible wherever I feel his notes. That’s very important to me.
GRUBER: Do you have any favorite memories or stories about Bill on or off stage?
CARTER: When Bill plays with a trio, or quartet – me, Herbie and him, or Donald Harrison, him and I – he uses a smaller drum set. I admire him for realizing his normal kit is not necessary for this trio gig. Don’t need that stuff for certain size ensembles. You can play just as well with one floor tom, one bass drum, only three cymbals. I admire him for understanding what his environment needs to make him be a part of that band.
GRUBER: Ron, what you are doing these days and what goals do you have for this stage of your career?
CARTER: I have a couple jazz classical records. My next hope is I can get some funds to do Bach motets. If I can find the budgetary possibility to hire eight singers, to replace the bass voice with the string bass, that’s my current dream. Other than that, I am enjoying being 80 years old. 
To fully experience the life and music of the legendary Billy Cobham, order your copy of “Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s”.
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