Interview with Ron Carter

Reprinted from old DTM, originally posted June 2007 in advance of the 70th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall.

See also Word Association with Ron Carter.

Ethan Iverson:  Mr. Carter, it’s an honor to talk to you.  For my bona fides I’m going to play one of my favorite records over the phone.

Ron Carter:  Ok.

[The first tune is heard.]

Oh yeah! Etudes.  That’s a good one.  Tony Williams, Art Farmer, and Bill Evans.  I really enjoyed that one.

EI:  This is one of my favorite records that you’ve done as a leader.  It makes a case for you as an underrated composer.  You have a really distinctive style, with small catchy melodic shapes that circle around in kind of a humorous way.

RC:  I try.  It’s great to hear that a stranger appreciates my compositions and my music.

EI:  One of my favorite tunes of yours is “Einbahnstrasse.” The special quartet at Carnegie Hall is Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Billy Cobham.  On your record Uptown Conversation, you, Hancock, and Billy Cobham play “Einbahnstrasse” at the highest level.  I admit that this track is my favorite performance of Herbie Hancock in a trio setting.

RC:  Hancock was on fire! That’s a great record.

EI:  And you also recorded “Einbahnstrasse” with Wayne Shorter on a Bobby Timmons record (with Jimmy Cobb on drums).  Any chance that “Einbahnstrasse” will be on the Carnegie Hall set list with Wayne, Herbie, and Cobham?

RC:  I don’t know: the set list is still being planned.  On a gig like this, even the promoter gets involved in the repertoire.

EI:  Well, it has my vote, at any rate.

The phrase “The Sound of Jazz” is bandied about sometimes.  Well, for me, “The Sound of Jazz” is Ron Carter playing four beats in a row.

RC:  I wouldn’t disagree.

EI:  You push the beat, but it is still somehow relaxed and swinging.  Is there anything technical you would say about that? Like, if someone wanted to learn to play like you?

RC:  For young bass players, my advice is always the same: take lessons from advanced bass players! Usually, bassists are the least educated musicians on the bandstand.  That’s because if you play some bass, you can get some work.  Bands sometimes don’t improve because the bass players aren’t really learning on the job.  All bass players should study harmony and music whenever they can.

EI:  I’m afraid that sometimes the leaders of those bands aren’t very interested in a bass player bringing a lot to the bandstand.  The bassists might feel like bringing up the level of their contribution would not be warranted, if not actively disliked!

RC:  Well, that’s their loss, because a lot of this music comes from the bass.

The bass takes a lot of work physically, but there’s some kind of knowledge that is also from trial and error and getting relaxed in every situation.  From the second I take my bass out of the case on the current gig, I try to have the sound I had on the last gig.  If the sound of “me” is always there, that makes everything else less difficult.  Fighting every night for your sound is rough.

EI:  In terms of acquiring your kind of beat, what about that – is there anything specific or technical to say?

RC:  That’s just innate.  Part of it is being willing to be flexible, even when you don’t agree with the other players.  You can adjust.  I try to state what the beat is, and hopefully the other guys will trust me on that.  Most leaders like authority.  They don’t want a mouse back there.  If you have authority, the other musicians will respond.

EI:  How many records are you on?

RC:  Over 2000.

EI:  I’ve heard only a couple of hundred of them, but I know that there are sessions when you are playing with a weaker drummer.  You still play your vibe, almost like you aren’t paying attention to them.  Making the swing alone, with no help…

RC:  One of the things in my favor is that younger drummers trust me that I know where the beat really is.  A lot of the times they give me that respect because they have heard the records with Miles Davis.  But I would prefer it if they trusted me just because of how long I have been in the business, and that I have been working for so long to get it right.  There were nights with Miles that weren’t ok!…but we worked it out and it would get better.  I want to be trusted for the “here and now,” rather than the old records.

EI:  In the last ten years or so, we have lost three of the greatest drummers: Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Elvin Jones.  To me they all play the beat differently, and of course you played with them all.  Like you, Tony Williams seemed to push.

RC:  That’s not exactly right.  I know why you say that, but it is because Tony Williams played anticipations all the time: in a certain mood, he would play hits that were a 16th or more ahead of the beat with a lot of frequency.  That’s why he sounded like he was on the top-side of the beat.

In comparison, Elvin Jones was a “downbeat player.” He really played the “one.”

EI:  I think I have all the records with you and Elvin together.  There aren’t that many, just a half-dozen or so.  Did you gig together more?

RC:  We never played live, just in the studio.

EI:  Now, to me, there is nothing more swinging than the two of you together, because you are pushing and Elvin is laying back.  Like on that Pepper Adams date with Zoot Sims or The Real McCoy

RC:  You know, I just listened to The Real McCoy, maybe for the first time since I made it.  I had the original album still wrapped in cellophane.  (I probably should have not taken the cellophane off: I could have gotten a fortune for it on eBay.) But someone was telling me that it was one of the great records, so I took off the cellophane and listened to it.  I was taken aback.  Wow! We really got to it there.  I was like: let’s try to get there again!

EI:  How did you feel at the time it was recorded?

RC:  Elvin was very headstrong.  I think he had to get used to me a little bit.  Now, I don’t want to take this really…um…into outer space, but the fact of the matter is, I play more forcefully than Jimmy Garrison did.  I had a bigger sound and had more authority than Jimmy did.  Elvin had to get used to it.  Once he heard where I thought it was, though, there was no problem: Elvin was a consummate musician.  So, in rehearsal, we agreed on a place and said, let’s get this going! Yeah, The Real McCoy is a great record.

[Ed: Not all agree with Mr. Carter’s assessment of the great and enormous-toned Jimmy Garrison, whose relationship with Elvin Jones and the rest of the Coltrane quartet is more profound than Mr. Carter indicates here.  I have kept this uncomfortable comment in to make the suggestion of imagining how The Real McCoy would sound with Jimmy Garrison or Crescent with Ron Carter.  The fact that we wouldn’t want them to trade places, not even for a tune, says much to the credit of both these phenomenal bassists.]

As for Billy Higgins, if I tried to define it, I would say that Billy Higgins represents the Vernel Fournier or New Orleans style.  Zigaboo Modeliste from the Meters has it too, in a different genre.  They all have the same location of beat “four” to beat “one”.   It is so light and feathery from “four” to “one,” “two” sort of takes care of itself.

EI:  That’s beautiful, Mr. Carter.

RC:  I love drummers like Connie Kay, Kenny Clarke, and Osie Johnson.  Unfortunately I never played with Kenny Clarke, but I would have loved to.  These drummers sit right where I like it, not rushing or dragging, but with enough snare drum activity that the “one” doesn’t feel so dominant.

EI:  I was there at the Blue Note during your last duo run with Jim Hall.  You looked so nervous…no…I don’t mean “nervous,” I mean so “incredibly concerned” that every harmonic substitution you and Hall did was there and together.

RC:  I was worried that Jim Hall hadn’t been pushing it out there with his own groups as much recently, and was worried that I would be too aggressive, but it was fine.  The first night there were some substitutions, then the next night more, and so on.  I definitely put some out there that he wouldn’t have done of his own volition.  You know, there was no rehearsal, not even really a sound check.  I love playing with Jim, though.

EI:  I guess what I am trying to get to is that if we were playing a standard together, I could play every alternate route I could think of and be confident that you would back me up with those big ears you have.

RC:  I want to get there…BEFORE you do! That’s the whole fun of this, man!


EI:  Speaking of harmony, maybe we could talk about Wayne Shorter.  A few friends and I like to say that, “It seems like Ron’s on every record, but it’s too bad that he’s not on even more.” Certainly I wish that Ron Carter were on every Wayne Shorter record! I don’t mean to say I don’t admire the other bassists who played on Wayne Shorter records, but you really hook it up for Wayne on a different level.

RC:  Wayne writes really hard chords, man! They don’t always go where you want to go.  But it’s up to you to make it work.  The chord functions aren’t always in the bass, for example.

EI:  Now, why do the Wayne Shorter records that you and Herbie are on [Speak No Evil, The All-Seeing Eye, Schizophrenia] have such a different harmonic atmosphere than the Miles Davis records that feature Wayne’s tunes [Miles Smiles, Nefertiti, Sorcerer]?

RC:  You got another horn player: Miles Davis! Think about it if Sonny Stitt or J.J Johnson was the other horn….

EI:  Good Christ.  [Laughter.] No, I mean, did Miles do something to Wayne’s charts?

RC:  No, we all were looking at Wayne’s written music.  There was hardly any rehearsal.  We usually just got the music in the recording studio.  We made sure that the “A” section and the “B” – just the formal structure of a tune – was clear.  And then we would make a take.

EI:  Were there chord symbols? I had a theory that there were sometimes only piano voicings on the charts and not changes.

RC:  No, it’s true that there were voicings, but also Wayne always had chord symbols.  And he knew exactly what they meant! My job was to make them sound reasonable.

I’m really looking forward to playing with Wayne on the 27th at Carnegie Hall.   It’s been a few years now since we’ve played together.

EI:  Two of the groups at Carnegie don’t have drums.  Why the emphasis on playing without drums these days, like duo with Jim Hall and your current trio with Russell Malone and Mulgrew Miller?

RC:  Several reasons.  First, Mulgrew and Russell play great – really great.  The other part is trying to find what kind of colors can I get without drums.  The hard part is that having cymbals in the background is what the audience is used to hearing.

EI:  Well, the half-hour is up.  Do you mind if I just bend your ear for another few minutes to ask you about what, for me, are your four immediate predecessors?

RC:  Go ahead.  I have ten more minutes.

EI:  Paul Chambers.

RC:  Fabulous! Highly underrated! He passed away far too young.  He was the first guy who played inversions of the chords.  Great beat, great sound, and the best recorded bass sound of his time.  He also took the Jimmy Blanton concept of soloing to the next level.

EI:  Wilbur Ware.

RC:  He was first guy I met when I moved to New York, at the Five Spot in the late 50’s.  I never saw him with his own bass.  He brought his sound and his notes to every bass he played, though.  (This is worth considering for those young bassists today who have to tour on borrowed basses.) Wonderful player.  I liked watching him play.

EI:  Wilbur had some sort of simple clarity which I think you might have taken something from.

RC:  Uh, no, I don’t really think I took too much from him.  I have mostly taken things from the bands I was in, not other bassists as much.

EI:  Percy Heath.

RC:  I miss him dearly.  He would always come down to the gig I was playing, and we would talk, not just about the bass, but about life and philosophy.  I think the community of bass players doesn’t realize yet how much they miss him.  I really miss him! Percy had a truly great sound.  I can see him right now, playing with Connie Kay in the Modern Jazz Quartet.

EI:  Alright, I got one more.

RC:  One more, then I’m out.

EI:  Get ready…Doug Watkins!

RC:  Oh, wow! Talk about a great sound! Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus with Tommy Flanagan and Max Roach.  [sighs] I wish…in my imagination…

[long pause]

…sometimes I have a dream that Doug would have lived longer, and we would learned what he what would he have sounded like as bassists got pick-ups and amps.  Maybe he would have just stayed where he was…or maybe he would have changed.  I try to imagine it sometimes.  He and Leroy Vinnegar are two of my all-time favorites.

EI:  Well, this has been a real pleasure for me, Mr. Carter.  I can’t be there on the 27th, since I’ll be on tour.  But I sure wish I could make it; I’m sure it will be wonderful.

RC:  Well, it sounds like you will be there in spirit, and I can dig that, too.

Go on to Word Association with Ron Carter.