by Kevin Tomanka
February 27, 2015
Ask someone in the Jazz community about Ron Carter, and you may hear that he has a reputation for being a bit temperamental when interacting with certain players or people in the industry. If one wishes to, they can easily find stories from the past that tell of Ron becoming upset with someone at a session or maybe scolding a news reporter for their ignorance.
It’s even recounted in his 2009 biography by Downbeat writer Dan Ouellette that while he was a member of the famous Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960’s, he nearly walked out on Miles right before a west coast tour because the band hadn’t been paid from the previous week. However, with any examination at all, it’s clear to see that this is not an ego trip. In fact, it is the opposite. It’s a tack that’s not frequently found these days in professional music called “upholding standards” – not the ones that you play, but the ones that you live by.
It boils down to a respect for the process, and when you have worked hard to attain a reputation and a place in this industry, you respect it, and you can’t help but have opinions about those who didn’t learn or forget to hold that respect. Not even a musical behemoth like Miles Davis was immune from the fundamental rules that govern a true professional like Ron Carter.
There is another image of Ron out there, as spoken by his peers and music professionals who above all, defend Ron as the most reliable, trustworthy, sensitive player they know and how he is their number one call on every gig, regardless of the challenges. And it is actually this reputation that causes the other, because this one is much harder to attain, more difficult to maintain, and can evaporate instantly if the wrong choices are made. Those juicy stories of past conflict are really just reverberations of reputation maintenance. Yet, they are still the ones that filter into the headlines and rumors of the main stream. It’s easy to tell which Ron is the real one, he’s the one up there on stage, making all the right choices night after night. Watch him at any gig: always impeccably dressed, punctual, articulate, a towering posture standing with even a taller instrument, his attention focused to a razors edge. With every note he commands attention, nay, he demands it.
There are plenty of column inches dedicated to less disciplined musicians out there acting the fool, squandering resources in a studio session, or maybe losing it out on the road. Less often is that space used to outline a real role model for the professional musician. If you happen to need a perfect example for a monster player who also keeps his ship together, then look no further.
Oregon Music News got to talk with Ron Carter about his music and the trio he will be bringing to the PDX Jazz Festival 2015:
Who’s in the trio you’re bringing to the Portland Jazz Festival?
Larry Coryell on guitar, Donald Vega on piano and myself. We have a great library, and I’m looking forward to playing in Portland, I haven’t been there in a while.
Instead of a drummer, you’ve chosen two instruments from the rhythm section that can comp and play solo melodies. Did you put them in your trio by design, or did you pick these guys, and take them whatever their instrument?
It was by design: When Mulgrew Miller passed away, who was the original piano player of the trio I needed someone to take his slot, and Kenny Barron recommend Donald Vega. I’m very happy with Kenny’s recommendation. Donald is working out very well and getting better each time we play a concert.
I just came back from Japan with Larry Coryell in December, we did a tribute tour with Peter Bernstein called “ A Tribute to Jim” where we played songs from the Jim Hall / Ron Carter library in tribute to Jim’s passing. So it’s all set to go and I’m looking forward to having a chance to play with these guys again.
So when you tour in Japan, are you given the rock star treatment more so than in than in the states?
I’m not a rock star so I wouldn’t know how they get treated. They have significant hands-on-hands that move the gear around, wherever we go in Japan they’ve got a professional crew. If you have a concert or a gig at a club the sound man is there every day for the sound-check, they tune the piano every day. They’re really professional about making the presentation for musicians easier to take place then sometimes we get in the states. It’s a pleasure to play there and I look forward to going back whenever I can.
In the U.S. then, when in your career did you feel that the the genre of jazz finally separated from mainstream popular music?
Any separation that’s there is due to the instrument, not from the Jazz community. I mean, we’d love to have audiences as big as we can get them. I don’t know of any Jazz band that I’ve known or played in that was content to have a small audience if that’s what we’re asking here. Whatever separation there is from the jazz community and the other music, it’s not Jazz’s fault nor is it to their desire of course.
So for you there’s no lack of personal connection with the crowd as the venue grows?
Absolutely, but that’s not your question. Your question was how I feel about the separation between the Jazz community and the other music’s community. The Jazz community would like to have a full house every night wherever they play, the fact that they don’t is not their doing, it’s other factors out of their control.
And what do you think are the biggest factors?
Media, whatever media there is. I mean, let me ask you a question. Does your paper have a regular Jazz column?
OMN covers all genres, and Jazz typically is our top story on Tuesdays, but it’s actually Jazz / Blues combined.
That’s ok, but the fact that there’s a “Jazz/ whatever” column available every day. How many newspapers in the U.S. have that? None, I’m telling you, none. That’s a big reason.
What keeps you so grounded and present in today’s music scene?
The music is fragile as it is, and you work your lifetime to have a reputation that makes you stay available to various musical projects and various locations to play these gigs. All of that makes for ones career to be extended past it’s normal point of extinction. I’ve worked a long time and I still do to play with a certain standard, a certain attitude, a certain goodwill vibe whenever I go to work and people respond and respect that.
Do you now find yourself holding people to a standard because you’re working with them, or do you find yourself now only working with people who hold themselves to similar professional standards?
Some of both, it’s hard to have a group that is not going in the same direction in many avenues. I think if one guy’s comfortable with being half-awake for the gig but if he plays good that’s not enough good for the band if he’s not there. If he doesn’t wear the uniform or he loses the music or stuff like that that’s counterproductive to establishing a responsible relationship, I don’t see how that band can function as a band. So those kind of bands that stick together with certain rules and regulations, those are the ones that I think are the most successful and are longer lived.
Do you ever feel like you are alone in keeping up these standards these days
That’s someone else’s view, I don’t have a view on that because I’m in the center of it.
You have been a part of many super-groups over the years, are there still artists that you wish to collaborate with but haven’t gotten the chance yet?
There probably are people out there but I’m determined to have my groups be successful. I think the moment you put the group aside to join an All-Star band, you lose some of the credibility of being a leader of a certain ensemble with the people of your choice. So I’m opting to do that less and less because I’m determined to make my groups a viable financial musical organization.
So as far as planning to come to Portland? Is the set-list prepared in advance or do you pick songs a little closer to the show?
I haven’t yet but I will before I leave New York, I’ll sit down and plan a story, a 90-minute story and hopefully the audience will leave with some melodies and memories from our story.