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Friday, November 30, 2018, 11:09
The return of the noteworthy
By Rob Garratt
Friday, November 30, 2018, 11:09 By Rob Garratt

Tomorrow night’s onstage reunion between the octogenarian jazz bassist Ron Carter and his local former protégé promises to be a memorable gig, writes Rob Garratt.

Ron Carter holds a Guinness World record as the most-recorded bassist in the history of music. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Ron Carter’s mantra might be “finding the right notes”. As well as being the title of his authorized biography, it’s also what the jazz legend has been doing for the past six decades. His search for the right notes on some 2,221 records has earned the American musician a Guinness World Record as the most-recorded bassist in the history of music.

“That’s not accurate anymore — that record is like three years old,” scoffs the 81-year-old, speaking on the phone from his New York home, a week before touching down in Hong Kong to perform at Tsuen Wan Town Hall tomorrow evening. 

A few dozen more now need to be added to the tally, he says.

A handful of those records remain legendary even 50 years after they were first released. These include the recordings Carter made in the late 1960s as a member of the trumpeter Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet — an epoch-shifting ensemble of blistering musicality often hailed as the best jazz group ever. 

“I don’t do those definitions — I just try to play,” says Carter, who discusses his career with the quiet insight of an educator coupled with the guarded detachment of a rock star. “I understand that I’m probably the oldest guy who’s kind of famous right now playing the bass, and I don’t shy away from that. But I don’t wear the same tie every night. I try to play differently with everybody.”

Carter’s original plan was to become a concert cellist, a dream shattered by the racially prejudicial classical establishment of his day. “I had the talent, I had the look, I had the feeling, I knew the library,” he says. “I could have been a major player.”

Pablo Ziegler Jazz Tango Trio performing at a LCSD-hosted JazzUp concert where local talents collaborate with visiting headliners. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Following market demand, he switched to double bass, and jazz, scoring early breaks when he played on records by the free jazz pioneer Eric Dolphy and saxophone icon Coleman Hawkins. 

In 1963 Carter became one of the four young trailblazers who revolutionized Davis’s band, alongside pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams. The three newcomers were joined a year later by saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Together, over a string of seminal LPs including E.S.P., Miles Smiles and Nefertiti, this prodigious quintet developed an untethered “time, no changes” improvisational approach — which saw the rhythm maintained while the harmonic structure freed up beneath the soloist, facilitating a wilder, freer approach to improvisation. It marked the artistic peak, and final notable evolution of, small group acoustic jazz.

“For me, Ron really got his reputation from his time with Miles — that was one of the best groups in the world,” says former sideman Ted Lo, widely dubbed the godfather of Hong Kong’s jazz scene. “After that he had a recognized sound — that Ron Carter groove.”

By 1968, the quintet had crumbled as Davis followed his muse into electric jazz-rock, but while bandmates Hancock and Shorter found stadium-sized success making fusion records that crossed over to a mainstream audience — as part of their respective Headhunters and Weather Report bands — Carter refused to plug in. “I had no interest in that,” he says. “I appreciated what they had to do, and at the time they were successful. I’m not competing with those guys.”

Instead Carter pursued an eclectic solo career, clocking some 50 recordings as leader and finding time to guest on more than 2,000 others. He’s rarely happy listening to any of them today, however. “You know the word ‘cringe’? I cringe when I hear those choices I could have made,” he adds. It seems the right note is all a matter of perspective. 

Carter’s record-breaking discography includes sideman duties on multiple LPs by fellow-traveling legends including Chet Baker, Chick Corea, George Benson, Horace Silver and Quincy Jones — as well as reviving the Davis-era band, without its leader, as VSOP — and even being called on by hip-hop forefathers A Tribe Called Quest.

“I’m just trying to find the right notes,” says Carter. “I’m still looking, man, finding the right combination. That’s why going to work is fun every night for me.”

Ted Lo returned to Hong Kong from the US in 1996 to develop the local jazz scene. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Lo and behold

In 1980 Carter recorded the album Parfait at New Jersey’s legendary Van Gelder Studio with Ted Lo on the piano. The Hong Kong-born sexagenarian recalls getting a call out of the blue, which led to him touring the world for two years as a member of the Ron Carter Quartet.

“I think he said I reminded him of Herbie Hancock,” remembers Lo, the first Chinese graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “That’s got to be my most prestigious gig ever.”

Tomorrow night Lo will make a special guest appearance alongside the Ron Carter Trio, which includes touring members Russell Malone on guitar and Donald Vega on piano — a reunion marking the pair’s first meeting in 35 years. “I’m very excited — and a little nervous,” adds Lo, who returned to Hong Kong in 1996 to develop the local jazz scene. “Ron is a very serious musician, and they’re all very, very sensitive players.”

The surprise reunion is the work of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, with Carter being the latest star to appear as part of JazzUp, an educational concert series re-launched in 2017. Close to 4,000 people turned out at Queen Elizabeth Stadium for May’s inaugural Jazz Marathon, an all-day two-hander which saw HK-bred talents collaborating with visiting headliners. 

Senior manager Kitty Lee promises an expanded International Jazz Day 2019 marathon featuring more than 60 musicians over two days. “As long as we have our own (Hong Kong) talents, it is the right time to develop this music genre.”

If you go

Ron Carter Trio

Hosted by Leisure and Cultural Services Department

Venue: Tsuen Wan Town Hall, 72 Tai Ho Rd, Tsuen Wan

Date: Dec 1, 7:30 pm


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