Ron Carter Talks Detroit Jazz Fest, Remembers Van Gelder

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Ron Carter will serve as artist-in-residence of the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival, which takes place Sept. 2–5 in downtown Detroit.

(Photo: Fortnuna Sung)

Ron Carter is officially the most recorded bassist in jazz history—at least according to the scribes of The Guinness Book of World Records, who in 2015 bestowed the honor upon the 79-year-old in recognition of his prolific discography, which comprises more than 2,200 recording credits.

Unofficially, however, Carter may be the busiest bassist in jazz history, having maintained, for nearly 18 years, both a demanding touring schedule and a professorship at the City College of New York.

Although Carter is now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus, his career as a performer is no less active. In June, the DownBeat Hall of Fame inductee released Chemistry (HighNote), a duo album with saxophonist Houston Person. The Chemistry recording sessions were overseen by Rudy Van Gelder, the legendary recording engineer who died Aug. 25.

From Sept. 2–4, Carter will be back in his hometown of Detroit to headline the city’s annual jazz festival. The homecoming is anything but a vacation. Carter has been named the festival’s artist-in-residence, and in that role he will perform in various contexts, appearing with a trio, nonet, quartet and big band on a number of the festival’s free outdoor stages.

DownBeat caught up with Carter to discuss his involvement with the Detroit Jazz Festival, which this year will include performances by finalists in the Ron Carter National Jazz Bass Competition. He also shared fond memories of Van Gelder’s final years. The following excerpts are from a phone interview with the bassist.

You’ve been named the artist-in-residence of your hometown jazz fest. Do you enjoy being in the spotlight like that?

As a bassist, I’m kind of always in the spotlight—but the light’s not very bright (laughs). I think the artist-in-residence role going to a bassist is important, because it helps [fans] understand the bass player’s role in a concert. So I was thrilled when they made that announcement, and part of that announcement is that the light is brighter on me than it usually is.

You’ll be performing in a variety of settings at the festival—a nonet, a trio, a quartet, a big band. How does your role as a bassist differ relative to the size of the ensemble?

The difference is that, with the big band, there are specific parts the band must play to make the music work. My job with the big band is to make those necessary parts, those dedicated parts, those essential parts of the arrangements feel different to those musicians on stage every night. The dynamic of the bass—and I don’t mean the volume but the presentation of certain notes, the accent of certain rhythms, the presence of the length of each tone—must be distinct. If I change my bass line every night in accordance with those pre-determined figures, the overall atmosphere is going to feel different to those guys. They’re going to play those figures differently.

The trio means my choices can be even more over the top, because I only have two players to be concerned with. In this case, the pianist and guitar player, who I trust with my life and my bass—but not my car (laughs). I have almost too many choices, and I try to pick the right one.

The nonet, on the other hand, is like a small orchestra. The musicians are playing my orchestrated parts, and it always amazes me when they play the music I wrote for them. They’re playing my notes, and it always takes me to a different place in my head.

This year’s festival will feature performances by finalists in the Ron Carter Jazz Bass Competition, which fielded submissions from bassists 35 years or younger. Did you help oversee the audition process?

I heard some of the audition and pre-audition tapes and made some decisions, yes. And I plan to meet with all the finalists when I get to Detroit. I’ll make a presentation to them and hopefully I can coerce them to come to every concert. I want them to see the different roles and have a chance to experience the bass player in different ensembles.

What qualities were you looking for in those young bassists?

Number one: You’ve got to be able to read music. Music has gotten so complicated, man, and if you want to freelance in Detroit or in New York, you have to be able to read everybody’s book. Literally. You can’t just say, “I can feel it. Give me a tape or an MP3.” That doesn’t work anymore, and it hasn’t worked in a long time. So my first concern is, “Can this young person read music?” Because composers these days want the bassist to read their ideas, not make an interpretation of what the they want because the bassist can’t read.

The second thing I look for is the training—if this bassist has had lessons on the instrument. Because, once again, the music has gotten so complicated, and if you want to freelance you really have to know your instrument. In performance, there’s a lot of pressure on a person who doesn’t know the bass well enough to know where the notes are, especially if they’re playing music written by someone else.

The third thing is professionalism. Are they on time for the audition? Have they looked at the music in advance if they’re given any? Is their bass in condition to play? What are they playing on? Those kind of Bass 101 details. Those are the first things that catch my attention and make me think: Could this player sit in with any of my bands?

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