For Miles: Ron Carter

Boston Globe, July 13, 2007

As befits an art where experience forms more through apprenticeship with the masters than through sheet music or book knowledge, jazz has always honored its elders. Still, among the senior figures of the music, some icons stand out as especially monumental and command the greatest reverence. One of these today is Ron Carter. The bassist, who turned 70 earlier this year and visits the Regattabar for two nights this weekend, is generally acknowledged to be one of the key living custodians of the jazz tradition.

It’s easy to understand why. The man is almost absurdly prolific, having reputedly appeared on more than 2,500 recordings. He is an innovator on his instrument who long ago carved out a path for jazz bassists to come out from the rhythm-section background and assume melodic responsibilities, and who has assembled and composed for numerous multi-strings outfits, from ones contrasting the standard double bass with the higher-tuned piccolo bass all the way to a nonet featuring four cellos.

Of course Carter’s place in history has been secure for four decades thanks to what remains his best-known work, as a charter member of the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s, a combo as important and influential as any that has existed in jazz. But wallowing in past glories is of little interest to Carter, even though, understandably enough, he’s often invited to do so by younger musicians.

As Carter puts it, on the phone from his home on the Upper West Side: “I’m available to spend time with them if they want to talk seriously. Sometimes they say, `Let’s hang out,’ and I refuse. I don’t want to sit around and talk about what it was like to play with Miles. But if they want to do serious commentary on the history of the bass, then I’m available.”

Listening to some of Carter’s recent projects offers an education in itself; people curious about his time with Davis need look no further than Carter’s brand-new album, “Dear Miles,” in which he for the first time directly offers homage to the late trumpeter, with a program of songs that Davis enjoyed or, in Carter’s view, might have enjoyed playing.

But no less interesting is the contrast between Carter’s working quartet, which appears on that album, and his trio, which performs this weekend. Neither combo has the standard bass-and-drum rhythm section. The quartet features both a drummer and a hand percussionist; the trio, with guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Mulgrew Miller – replaced this week by regular stand-in Jacky Terrasson – features no drummer at all.

The drumless trio, most recently documented on the 2003 album “The Golden Striker,” presents both the musicians and the audience with a distinct challenge – or, one might say, an invitation to appreciating the music in a different way.

“Time is never the overt concern,” Carter says of working without drums. With that comes a risk: “Without the impetus of the drums, you sometimes get away with murder – well, you get away with unforgivable musical sins.”

This places an added responsibility on the musicians to make the songs legible and control their pacing. Carter finds his trio partners up to the task. “Russell has a great guitar sound,” he says. “His range makes the guitar audible and still allows the bass to be heard, so I don’t have to turn the amp up to `stun.”’ Of Terrasson, he says: “He’s a good composer. He understands how songs work … and the important of the song form.”

The instrumentation allows the audience, once it adjusts to the absence of the snare and cymbals, to approach the music differently. “They can hear the melodies more distinctly,” Carter says. “There’s one less sound between them and the melody. The interplay is more translucent, and you can more easily hear the bass players.”

Which of course makes sense. Carter’s entire career has been devoted to making the bass heard in every possible way: plucked or bowed, from walking lines to melody, alone or in duets or groups of any size. His fascination extends beyond the bass to the entire universe of strings: Growing up in Detroit, he started off as a cellist, and, he says, it was the lack of opportunity in that time for black cello players that led him to focus on the bass.

He rarely picks up the cello himself nowadays, he says. “Once a month, to dust off the cobwebs. I have a couple of them, they call out to me every day, but I turn a deaf ear.” He pays attention to cellists doing avant-garde work, but notes that they still seem to shy away from jazz. And he takes special pleasure in writing for multiple strings: “I love it. Strings can play anything: the pad, the cushion, aggressive, sinister, melodic …”

Though he has retired now from his teaching position at New York’s City College, Carter remains an especially prolific performer and recording musician. He insists, however, that he’s not a workaholic: “I know when to stop.” He enjoys tending to his window flower gardens, and he’s currently reading “The Overlook,” the latest mystery by Michael Connelly, whose books he enjoys, along with those of George Pelecanos, for the ample place they make for music. In fact, he says, “my name appears, on page 67.”

That’s just another moment of recognition for the bassist in a summer that has already seen, last month, a massive Carnegie Hall celebration of his 70th year. At that concert, he played in a duo with guitarist Jim Hall, in a trio with Malone and Miller, and with both his regular quartet and an all-star gathering with fellow Davis quintet veterans Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

It’s rare – maybe even unprecedented – for a jazz bassist, even one of Carter’s caliber, to be the recipient of so much hype and hoopla, but Carter is acceptings with good grace. “It’s uncomfortable,” he says, “but I am worthy.”