Venue: Jazz Standard
Date: August 28th – September 2nd
Trumpets: Greg Gisbert, Jon Owens, Alex Norris & Frank Greene
Saxophones: Jerry Dodgion, Jay Brandford, David deJesus, Bobby LaVell & Ivan Renta
Trombones: James Burton, Steve Davis, Douglas Purviance & Jason Jackson
Donald Vega, piano
Russell Malone, guitar
Kenny Washington, drums
Ron Carter, bass/leader
Ron Carter is perhaps the most recorded bassist in music, appearing on well over 2,500 albums. From the oscillations that anchor Gil Scott-Heron’s “Pieces of a Man” to his driving bassline opening on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” it’s impossible not to spot Carter’s distinctive sound in any rhythm section. He’s worked with everyone in the business (Miles Davis, Bobby Timmons, A Tribe Called Quest) but during his week-long engagement at Jazz Standard, Carter undertakes a role that is rare for a jazz bassist—big band leader.
The Ron Carter Big Band made its debut at Jazz Standard last summer, around the same time that he broke new ground in recording his first ever big band album. Having experienced both performances firsthand, it’s an added bonus to be able to compare them side by side. While the 13-piece horn section keeps in line with the traditional big band model, in both performances, Carter’s anything but traditional as he combines both swing and bebop in his arrangements of the compositions and his players.
The intimate samba groove of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” is what invites you into the number before it expands into full on swing. However, Carter sticks with the inverted paradigm where the tune begins more symphonic, with an overpowering horn section, then transitions into straight-ahead jazz. While it makes perfect sense to shift the arrangement in order to make the rhythm section, notably Carter’s bass, the focal point, the overall tone is an imbalanced one which doesn’t allow the listener to emotionally connect with the number.
On Carter’s original composition “Loose Change,” the marriage between bebop and swing is much more organic in tone in that it allows the horn section to sway, literally, alongside the rhythm section. It highlights rather than detracts from not only Carter’s nimble fingering, but notably Russell Malone’s melodic guitar coupled with Kenny Washington’s steady beat on drums. He also arranges Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” in similar fashion.
The noticeable difference between the two big band appearances is heard on Carter’s take on the Rodgers & Hart standard “My Funny Valentine.” Last summer, the tune featured Mulgrew Miller on piano, which provided the perfect, slight compliment to Carter’s solo on bass. And to be frank, that performance should have been recorded for a live album. Carter’s early training on cello has always given him such a unique prowess on double bass in that he leaves not a single note unplucked and isn’t afraid to discover new ones along the way. This year’s performance continues to show off Carter’s fluidity and nimbleness as his notes echo throughout the room, but sadly, it’s far too brief. He instead hands off the tune to pianist Donald Vega. And while Vega is technically proficient, it’s the wrong approach to take on this Rodgers & Hart tune, which has little do with precision and everything to do with love and all of its imperfections.
While there may have been missteps along the way, from the arrangements themselves to certain musician choices, Carter’s adventurous spirit at this stage of his illustrious career is commendable for it is not an easy feat to mesh the worlds of big band and bebop, especially since they’re inherently polar opposites in both sound and format.
Words by Shannon Effinger