When biologists single out “keystone species” that whole ecosystems depend on, they’re never sharks, bears, lions or other PBS glory hogs. Ecologists warn of the dire things that would happen if all the trees, or the insects, or the bacteria, in the world disappeared.
If there is a keystone organism alive in jazz right now, it’s surely bassist/composer Ron Carter.
If Carter and his multifarious works vanished, life might go on. But would it be worth living? Carter, 83, is arguably the most illustrious and influential in a long line of guest artists to do a residency with the MSU Jazz Studies program, and he’s still searching for something new, from intimate duo and trio dates to a big band gig in New York’s Blue Note last weekend.
“Every night, when I go to work, I’m looking for the second floor,” Carter said in a phone interview before the Blue Note gig, a tribute to pianist/composer Michel Legrand. “I’ve been on the first floor for a long time and I want to get off!” On many of the great recordings in jazz history, from Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven” to McCoy Tyner’s “Extensions,” Carter quietly controls the chemistry like a blacksmith, bending the music to his will as it curls, white hot, out of the creative furnace.
“I look for a set of notes, where they are on the bass — can I make the band go this way, make them better?” Carter said.
“It’s beyond finding the right notes,” MSU Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker said. “He is the bass player that will immediately make your band sound like a band. If he’s not on the bandstand, it’s a different record, a different gig.”
Saxophonist Joe Henderson called Carter “Big Brother” because of his apparent mind-reading ability, according to Whitaker.
“Wherever you think you’re going to go musically, he goes there before you go, or he’ll lead you to where you want to go,” Whitaker said.
Carter is aware of his authority in a group and isn’t shy about using it.
“That’s part of what the Creator’s given me, man,” Carter said. “I have to find the right set of notes, the right integrity, the right demeanor, the reputation of helping dates go where they can go — and that might be somewhere else, other than where they were intended to go, to be musically successful. I do that kind of stuff and I have a great time.”
Carter also deploys a dry sense of humor.
To ask him the secret of his vitality is to court a brisk slap.
“I have hair, and a not all gray beard. I think there’s still milk on my bib so I’m OK.”
Asked whether music is the best thing human beings do, he hesitated.
“I’m not old enough, man,” he said. “Six years from now I can figure out the answer. A great handshake or a serious hug — there’s no music in that but the feeling is great.”
After years of trying, Whitaker exploited a rare opening in Carter’s busy schedule of recordings, playing gigs and teaching.
Carter’s residency caps a week-long Jazz Spectacular that also includes a swing dance Wednesday night, a concert with student octets and percussionist Carlos Valdez Thursday, and the day-long Essentially Ellington high school band competition Saturday.
Whitaker, mentor to hundreds of musicians, is elated to finally get one of his own mentors in the house.
“He was my hero on a lot of levels, being from the same home town,” Whitaker said. Carter grew up in Ferndale and, like Whitaker, went to Cass Tech High School in Detroit.
Whitaker met Carter for the first time at MSU in 1985, when Whitaker was a 17 and a prospective student, taking auditions, and Carter was doing duets with guitarist Jim Hall.
“There are things I do in my playing that I forgot I took from him,” Whitaker said with a laugh. “The records he did with Miles are etched in all of our memories, but he’s beyond that.”
For five ground-breaking years, Carter anchored trumpeter Miles Davis’ second quintet, one of the greatest groups ever, with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. Carter has played on 2,221 recordings as of September 2015, according to Guinness Records.
“Joe Henderson, Roberta Flack, the records he did on Blue Note — there’s so much,” Whitaker said. “He’s the most recorded bassist in history.”
Carter has seen jazz go through a lot of changes, from bebop to post-bop, funk, fusion and flings with hip hop and non-Western music. His own foray into hip hop, on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Low End Theory,” brought his bedrock bass roll to an appreciative younger audience.
Through all the phases of jazz, Carter said, “two things always happen.”
“There’s always someone who wants to play better than the next guy,” he said. “And there’s always someone who thinks they’ve found a new way to play music.”
Those two things, he said, “trigger changes in music.” “Whether it’s Miles, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Ornette Coleman, Trane — there’s certain people who are determined to do it,” Carter said. “And it’s not an ego thing, man. They just have that drive to get to the second floor.”
After a long career of playing in intimate formats such as quintets, quartets, trios and some exquisite duets, most notably with Jim Hall and saxman Houston Person, Carter has taken up the expanded palette of a big band — but he doesn’t call it that.
“I tell these guys, ‘You’re part of a 16-piece quartet. Enjoy the ride,” Carter said with a laugh.
Another jazz legend, pianist/composer Michel Legrand, was set to play the Blue Note gig last weekend with Carter, but Legrand fell ill at the last minute and Carter had to scramble. The arrangements were built around Legrand’s piano playing and had to be reworked. Carter took it all in stride.
“I call it a live get well card,” Carter said.
“People will feel it’s truly a tribute and a reminder of Michel Legrand’s importance on the music competition scene.”
This week, Carter is bringing arrangements to MSU for the students to tackle.
“Yes, Mr. Whitaker’s already paid for them — that’s the rumor, anyway,” he joked.
MSU Jazz Spectacular Swing Dance with Jazz Orchestras 7:30 p.m. Wed., April 18, MSU Demonstration Hall $8-10
Jazz Octets With Carlos Valdez, percussion 7:30 p.m. Thurs., April 19, Fairchild Theatre MSU Auditorium $8-10
Finale Concert Ron Carter, bass 8 p.m. Sat., April 21, Fairchild Theatre MSU Auditorium $15-25