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Caution: Jazz at Work

There Will Never be Another Ron Carter

by DAVID YEARSLEY

I never got around to writing my intended tribute to the great American bassist Ron Carter last year at this time on the occasion of his 75th birthday. Carter  entered the jazz canon fifty years ago when he joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963, remaining in the group for a five-year span that yielded the celebrated LPs E.S.P and Seven Steps to Heaven. His wide-ranging and indefatigable efforts since then are to numerous to list here; last year he was inducted into DownBeat’s Jazz Hall of Fame. Carter’s direct contributions to the vibrancy of the art of jazz is well-known to many aspiring musicians, myself included. I got to make music with Carter on jazz educator Jamey Aebersold’s Play-Along series; in the All-Bird installment of that project, a rhythm section with Carter on bass provided the accompaniment for bunch of famed Charlie Parker’s tunes, from the relaxed blues Billie’s Bounce to daunting up-tempo of Donna Lee . I could turn down the right speaker and eliminate the piano and have at it. Ron Carter is a towering musical figure, who seems like a friend even to those who have never met him.

This past week Carter celebrated his 76th, birthday, and to mark that very American number I’ve gone to the archive of the Anderson Valley Advertiser for a piece I wrote in February of 1996. Things have changed since then.  The MoMA in New York has been remodeled and remade. Jazz clubs are now smoke free. The wonderful jazz photographer Roy DeCarava died in 2009. The Sweet Basil jazz club is gone. But Carter is still going strong.

My first bit of luck last Friday was to stumble into the Museum of Modern Art in New York to find that a retrospective of the photographs of Roy DeCarava was on exhibit.  A substantial part of DeCarava’s work has been taking photographs of jazz musicians, and his MoMA show, which continues for the rest of the month, displays many of his famous pictures:  Billie Holiday singing at a 1957 house party; drummer Elvin Jones’ sweat-streaked face gripped by concentration; a smiling Louis Armstrong striding down a Harlem Street; and John Coltrane frozen to his horn in an ecstatic moment of creation.  Much of the power of these images derives, I think, from DeCarava unwillingness to glamorize musicians in his photographs taken during performance—more often—during the countless hours they spend waiting to play.  “I don’t think of musicians as musicians,” he writes, “but as workers.”

The second bit of luck was to discover that the MoMA is sponsoring a series of Friday jazz concerts led by the great bassist Ron Carter and running concurrently with DeCarava’s show.  Carter’s quintet welcomed an overflow audience to the museum café with a rendition of the standard, “There Will Never Be Another You,” announcing a program to come that was so straight-ahead Euclid himself would have smiled.  From the very first bar the rhythm section of Carter on bass, Stephen Scott on piano, and Louis Nash on drums proved to be a Triumvirate of swing — exacting but not mechanical, propulsive though never frantic.

After the opener the quintet settled into Milt Jackson’s famous blues, “Bags Groove,” and the audience knew it was in for a pleasure cruise.  Tenor saxphonist Javon Jackson’s surveyed the view from the foredeck with a detached humored reminiscent of jazz giant Sonny Rollins.  That Jackson doesn’t quite match Rollins’ exuberant irony should not detract from his youthful brilliance. Jackson has something to say that’s worth listening to, and I like the way he lays back and draws the audience in.  Because people think art demands the transcendent genius of a discredited Romanticism, every artist now must be a genius, all the more so if he’s got a couple platinum records hanging from his living room wall. Art is craft, and Jackson knows his trade.  Alongside Jackson on the front line was trumpeter Edwin Russell, who plays with a gruff wit and ruffled tone that serves as the perfect foil for the tenor player already boasting an impressive CV that includes time with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Jackson’s future looks even brighter than his store of past accomplishments.

But the greatest discovery was of pianist Stephen Scott, who is, from what I can gather, a very busy man on the New York scene these days.  Like all the players assembled by Carter for the MoMA gig, Scott is young, but he has already arrived; his prodigious technical abilities are fed by immense powers of invention, and the structure of his improvisations are as compelling as the beautiful detail of the way he tells these musical stories.  It’s not surprising then, that last year he played alongside bop-Olympian Kenny Barron in a two piano quartet at Sweet Basil’s in Greenwich Village.  But like the rest of the players in Carter’s pick-up squad, Scott has a good sense of humor.  On “Bags Groove,” Carter and Nash urged him on through several double-time choruses, then suddenly quit playing.  Scott responded with a quick history lesson in jazz piano, demonstrating his mastery of stride and boogie-woogie before offering homages to the Yin and Yang of bop pianists — Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk.  Scott gradually thinned out the texture until he was playing only a single line in his right hand, which became more and more sparse until he was dabbing quick bits of syncopated color across the blues form.  Just as Scott let things disintegrate into an abstraction verging on nothingness, the bass and drums kicked in as Scott play a few more choruses of gentler blues, with all the musicians—and many in the audience—smiling and shaking their heads in amazement.  Such fantastical forays were made possible by the foundation laid by Carter, who is one of the greatest accompanists in jazz, who has the stature and the wit to able to follow Scott’s impromptu lecture with his own solo ruminations as captivating as thos of his young pianist. There is always energy and imagination in Carter’s magisterial brand of music-making.

I will never be one to complain about a performance made up of tunes from the bebop lexicon; the whole evening was essentially a magnificent jam session, filled with the uncertainty and excitement that attends such gatherings.  Before concluding the first set with a very brisk version of Monk’s typically idiosyncratic “Well You Needn’t,” the quintet turned to his well-known ballad “Round Midnight,” which featured a refined and quirky solo by Jackson, with a beautiful cadenza accompanied by Scott.  The saxpohonist’s introspective style and the subtle commentary provided by the rhythm section came across all the more powerfully because the musicians were playing without microphones; only Carter had a small amplifier for his bass.  The players achieved a direct communication much more human and subtle than is possible when the music is filtered through the usual tangle of wires and black boxes.  I suppose amplification is necessary if the musicians are to be heard over the hub-bub of most jazz clubs, but at the MoMA café people simply had to concentrate more on the music than on ordering their next drink or impressing their date.  Ironically, I happened to have two German dowagers seated not far from me discussing the horrors of New York’s subways, so I stood against a wall next to the bandstand for the second set.  Equally as uncommon as unamplified bebop was the excellent air-quality afforded by the MoMA’s smoke-free environment, for it is indeed rare that a club allows one the dual pleasures of listening to live jazz and breathing.  Why is it that things are so rarely the way they should be, especially when it is so simple?

Of the four tunes in the second set, three were by Sonny Rollins; half of the pieces on the program (Bags Groove, Oleo, Doxy, St. Thomas) were recorded by Miles Davis and a quintet featuring Rollins on a date for Prestige way back in 1954.  But as we cruised these well-charted seas, with a full house of MoMA vacationers sunning themselves on deck, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty about enjoying the trip.  Here’s what I started thinking in the break between sets, guarding my place near the bandstand and watching the snow-covered sculptures in the MoMA garden disappear in the twilight outside:  boundless innovation gets us dreary rectangles of Mark Rothko on the walls of the MoMA, and crop-dusting helicopters dangling from its rafters.  Try and convince me that Edwin Russell’s spirited improvisation on Sonny Rollins’ calypso romp, “St. Thomas,” isn’t better than the majority of the stuff up on the top floors of the MoMA, from the Formula One race car to the completely white canvasses.  (Lest I’m thrown overboard, let me just say that I love almost everything on the first two floors of the museum.)  Unhindered by microphones, the St. Croix native Russell was able to achieve marvelous acoustic effects, as when he would point the bell of his trumpet down at the floor then sweep it in an arc across the front of the band stand, unleashing sunny blasts and sustained, high-register lines out into the café.

To close out the program Carter steered his crew back towards port with a blistering “Oleo,” Rollins’ gloss of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” These chord changes are the Scylla and Charybdis of jazz, but for those able to navigate the treacherous straits between them, there is plenty of open water beyond.   Jackson proved that his humor was as quick as the demanding tempo, peppering his solo with Charlie Parker quotes, and Russell capped a banner evening with a spirited display of bop pyro-technics; his playing is dexterous but with a charming bluffness that lifts my spirits.  But the most impressive performance was once more given by Scott, who was again left to solo for several choruses, Carter and Nash joining in only on the bridge, the middle portion of the tune.  Hearing the bass and drums lay out during stretches makes you appreciate their decisive energy all the more, particularly in those moments when they enter again to infuse the soloist with renewed intensity.  Drummer Nash is a brilliant player who listens carefully and who always deploys his vast technical abilities for the greater good of the ensemble.  While trading four measure segments with Jackson and Russell, Nash made a quick tour of bebop drummers proving that he too is capable of a swift ironic interplay.

After the abrupt ending of “Oleo” the audience immediately rose to give the players a standing ovation.  The musicians bowed once then stayed on the stand talking, and the applause quickly died down; no need for three curtain calls and flowers all around.  DeCarava might have observed that they had created two-hours of art simply because they had shown up and done their jobs.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com