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Chronology: Ron Carter Leaves “Stadium Jazz” Behind

Three early-’80s gems on which the great bassist went back to basics

Ron Carter 1985
Ron Carter at Cooper Union, New York, February 1985 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Ron Carter is the most recorded bassist in history, on more than 2,200 sessions, over 50 of them as a leader or co-leader. Three of the best are from a productive period from December 1981 to November 1982: Heart and Soul with Cedar Walton, the unique quartet session Etudes, and Live at Village West with Jim Hall. This trilogy argues not just for the power of straight-ahead jazz circa 1982 but also for the conceptual and compositional acumen of the bassist, who, for all his fame, doesn’t always get his due as a leader. 

Carter began his prolific career in 1960; a tenure with Miles Davis from 1963 to 1968 made him a star, along with the other members of that “Second Great Quintet,” Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams. In addition to many sessions with Davis, Shorter’s Speak No Evil (1964), Hancock’s Maiden Voyage (1965), and McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy (1967) all feature Carter and are essential to any music library. 

In the ’70s, jazz took a strong turn into big and bold. Carter didn’t play much pure fusion, but he did record a bit on electric bass, for example on Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay from 1970. Many of Carter’s own albums from the ’70s on CTI and Milestone added strings, brass, and percussion, not to mention funk and even disco beats (Anything Goes, 1975). Even small-combo acoustic music could be informed by an outsized aesthetic, notably V.S.O.P., an era-defining collective with Hancock, Hubbard, Shorter, and Williams that began in 1976. On paper it looks like a Miles Davis reunion band with Hubbard in place of Davis; however, the overall effect is quite different, for everyone was playing busier and louder than a decade earlier. The phrase “stadium jazz” is a helpful rubric.

When Hancock brought the teenage Wynton Marsalis on board to join Carter and Williams for Quartet (1981), it was indicative of a general movement away from the most outré excesses of fusion and stadium jazz. This return to the basics was perfect for Carter, who—unlike peers Hancock and Shorter—hadn’t stopped working with less grandiose but still top-shelf straight-ahead groups both live and in the studio. 

Ron Carter and Cedar Walton are masters of time, and Heart and Soul—originally issued on the Timeless label—is one of the most swinging duo albums ever recorded. Its pocket is deep indeed; these days, this 40-year-old session is prized by young drummers as the ideal play-along. Walton’s liner notes are helpful: “The Ron Carter-Cedar Walton duets came about when we started a series of performances in some of New York City’s music saloons. … [T]he response was so very encouraging that the duets began to relax: gaining momentum without sounding hurried.” 

Compared with the Carter-Walton duo, the Carter-Jim Hall duo was a little more interactive and mysterious. They had a long history, going back to at least 1972 and the album Alone Together, up to gigs quite late in Hall’s career. The audience at the Village West on this Concord release is rapt and attentive, alert to the magic in the air. Oscar Pettiford’s “Laverne Walk” is part of the setlist, and in Jim Ferguson’s liner notes, Carter explains, “Oscar proved that a bassist could also compose.” This charismatic bluesy/bop line has gone into the permanent Carter repertory: Just recently, he and Russell Malone included “Laverne Walk” in their socially distanced holiday 2020 concerts live-streamed from Carter’s apartment.

Before Carter joined Miles Davis, he was the bassist for Art Farmer’s group, and Carter had the brilliant idea to invite Farmer back into the mix for Etudes, his one album on Elektra/Musician. Originally Wayne Shorter was supposed to join in, but when that didn’t happen, producer Bruce Lundvall suggested then-current Miles Davis saxophonist Bill Evans. Any record of Tony Williams and Ron Carter together automatically has value, and Etudes offers a particularly fine example of their chemistry; without a piano thickening the texture, the bass and drums can be heard with notable clarity. Carter is famous for his walking quarter-note lines—there’s nobody better—but he also orchestrates the music in other ways: half-time, pedal points, hemiolas, and other surprises. Williams is with him every step of the way. 

Most of Carter’s many compositions tend to be quite basic, almost sing-song, a bit in the Thelonious Monk idiom. Etudes is stacked with several of his best tunes—“Rufus” is unusually sophisticated and memorable— alongside two examples of Williams’ own growing compositional mastery, notably the contrapuntal “Doctor’s Row.” Carter’s “Bottoms Up” is a surprise, a free-form folk piece aligned with Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden. In general, the horns easily talk their bebop over the deluxe rhythm section and the whole LP is simply marvelous.

FURTHER LISTENING

Where? (New Jazz, 1961) – As a leader, Carter was always interested in eclecticism. His first LP marries Carter’s own classical-informed cello, the avant effusions of Eric Dolphy, and the old-school swing of George Duvivier.   

Uptown Conversation (Embryo, 1969) – The next Carter LP is underrated, with Hubert Laws at his funkiest and one of the very best Herbie Hancock trio tracks, “Einbahnstrasse.”

Patrão (Milestone, 1980) – A rare sighting of Chet Baker playing with a Brazilian rhythm section; Jack DeJohnette is also heard to good effect.

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.