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Sticking to his beloved bass, Carter keeps things fresh

By Bill Beuttler (Boston Globe, July 2, 2004)

Ron Carter might get a bit wistful as he brings his quartet to the Duffin Theatre in Lenox for performances tonight and tomorrow night. The great jazz bassist originally intended to become a classical cellist, and Lenox is, of course, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Still, Carter hasn't done too badly on the bass. The 67-year-old achieved fame as a member of Miles Davis's great 1960s quintet, has performed on countless albums as a first-call New York session player (his website estimates 2,500), and has led assorted ensembles of his own on disc and in performance since the late 1970s.

But all that might not have happened had the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski not snubbed him for an orchestra slot in 1959. At the time, Carter was a student at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. He already had switched from cello to bass at his Detroit high school, to take advantage of the graduation of the school orchestra's only bass player. But he found it difficult to get serious consideration for his bass playing at Eastman.

"They would have auditions for orchestras," Carter recalls on the phone from New York, "but they wouldn't post them until they had already taken place. And then one of the conductors, Stokowski, told me he'd love to have me in his orchestra — at the time he was down there in Houston, I think — but said the Houston board directors weren't ready for a `colored guy' playing classical music."

That was the last straw for Carter, who refocused his attention on jazz. "I would have been one of the best classical bass players there ever was," says Carter, a boast backed up by two of his releases, "Brandenburg Concerto" (1996) and last year's chamber-like trio disc, "The Golden Striker."

Instead, Carter went to the Manhattan School of Music for a master's degree and to sideman gigs with Chico Hamilton, Cannonball Adderley, and others. He was playing with Art Farmer when Davis dropped by one night in 1963 and hired him to replace Paul Chambers in what would become Davis's second legendary quintet, this one rounded out by Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, and Tony Williams on drums.

That band revolutionized jazz with its rhythm section's freewheeling approach to time. Carter remembers the new rhythmic concepts having been brought to Davis by his young sidemen — Carter and Hancock were in their twenties and Williams in his late teens initially — more than the other way around. "We'd talk about it after the gig or between sets," Carter says, "to discuss what almost happened, or try to remember what happened from the previous night, to set up that kind of idea for the next night."

Carter was the first to leave the quintet, doing so in 1968 to capitalize on New York's then-thriving studio scene. "I'd been traveling real hard for five years," he explains, "not only with [Davis's quintet] but with other bands, and the New York recording scene was alive and well. I thought that I could stay in New York, resume private teaching, and then pick up enough recording sessions and working around town to make earning a living on the road not so essential anymore."

Finding enough recording sessions proved easier than expected, especially those early years. "It was not a problem to go every day to the studio and make a different record," says Carter. "I mean, the possibilities of recording this music in the past 50 years, up 'til three, four years ago, were overwhelming."

A bit trickier was getting club owners and record executives to go for the idea of a bassist leading his own combo, particularly with his bass serving as the group's lead instrument. Fellow bassists such as Dave Holland and the late Charles Mingus have sidestepped the problem by having horns in their front lines. But Carter has stubbornly eschewed horns and vibes in both his Latin-tinged quartet (Stephen Scott on piano, Steve Kroon on percussion, and Payton Crossley on drums) and his other bands, keeping his bass front and center.

Which isn't to say Carter hogs the spotlight with bass solos. "One of the things that pleases me most," he says, "is when I can make a soloist — whoever he or she is, on whatever instrument they're playing — not play what they've played in their house. I call it a `kitchen solo.' My job is to make them think and play differently when I'm playing with them."

"He's constantly changing things around," says Kroon, who has been with Carter since 1986. "He feels that's the way of keeping the music fresh, and keeping you fresh, too."

Keeping things fresh for Carter is an invitation to perform with the quartet in Boston on July 25 as part of the Democratic National Convention festivities. Carter views the appearance as a two-way endorsement — his own of "the Democratic platform" and the party's of "recognizable jazz."

"It's just nice to know," he deadpans, "that someone in the Democratic Party knows that musicians other than Kenny G are available to play."

Ron Carter’s quartet is at the Duffin Theatre, 197 East St., Lenox, tonight and tomorrow night at 8. Tickets are $35 in advance, $39 at the door. Call 800-594-8499.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
© Bill Beuttler