For Ron Carter, the work never stops: ‘I’m still trying to be a complete, better player’

Bassist, composer and bandleader Ron Carter has been at the forefront of jazz for decades.

Carter is an NEA Jazz Master and the most recorded bassist in jazz history, with more than 2,200 recordings and counting. From his groundbreaking work with Miles Davis to his solo work, he’s especially known for his ability to make artists across all genres better at way they do — whether that’s Horace Silver, Chick Corea, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon or any of his many other collaborators over the years.

At 85, Carter busier than ever. He’s currently in the middle of a month-long headlining run at Birdland in New York, and he’s the focus of a new PBS documentary called Finding the Right Notes.

Carter joined us to talk about the documentary and much more.

I was wondering about this run that you’re doing in New York. You started with your quartet, now you’re a trio, then you’ve got the big band, and you’re wrapping up with Bill Charlap. What are the challenges in creating these different musical collaborations and combinations?

First of all, you need to have good players who understand the requirements to be on this particular gig. [Whether] it’s a big band, duo, trio or quartet, they have specific libraries. With each library comes a specific sound for that band. Secondly, [if] the bass player is the one giving the instructions, the guys have to trust the bass player’s direction. Tempo, tune selection, the order of the songs, what to wear… there’s a whole package that revolves around the bass player being able to make these decisions. Once the members of these various groups tune in to that level of responsibility that someone else has, it’s smooth sailing. I look forward to it.

You’ve said one of your main goals when you’re playing with others is to make them sound better. What are some of the qualities you look for in band members or musical partners? Is there something you see in other musicians that tells you that if you play with them, you can make them better?

I think I can help anyone sound better, because I’ve been doing it for a very long time with a pretty decent résumé of experience. Once the group trusts my choice of notes, trusts my intuition, trusts my willingness to see what their ideas are before I put mine on the plate, that I’m a serious player at all times … once they tune into that kind of mindset, making them sound good is a matter of getting a library that works for everybody.

You seem to be more active than ever… the quartet, the documentary, social media, interviews. During the last couple of years when things shut down, did it change how you wanted to shape your music and your career when you had the opportunity to get back out there?

What it gave me a chance to do was to stop for a moment. As you mentioned, I’m having an active career and I’ve had it for a very long time. Not being able to go to work every night and worry about the band, the library, the tempo, the trust of the musicians, the trust of where I work… Not having the opportunity to do that for almost two-and-a-half years, it gave me a pause to [think about] what I’ve been up against for a very long time. There are things out there that require our immediate attention. The school system still has no music program in place as permanently as they have sports in place. That still upsets most of us. When you can’t go to gigs at night, you have to worry about something else. I looked at that situation and said, how can we fix music in the schools? How can we get instruments for the kids? It forced me to think about those kinds of answers and to see what I can do.

When you were able to get back out there and play with musicians, was there a different sense of the music or how you felt about it? 

We’re all looking for the right notes. Now that we have a chance to do it full-time, we appreciate the opportunities we took for granted. It made us all sit back and say, what have we been missing here? We appreciate it more now that we’re back on the scene again. We’re looking at it with a whole different attitude.

Did you find the audiences were any different? Were they more hungry for the music?

I think they’re more hungry now. I explain to them that one of the things that’s nice about going to work is playing for strangers again. I’d been in my house for two-and-a-half years, playing for my house. I was only concerned with what I was doing in my little apartment. Now I’m concerned with 2,500-seat Carnegie Hall or a 500-seat nightclub. I’m loving playing to strangers again. I ask them, “Please don’t tell me your name, because then you’re no longer a stranger.”

I could be wrong, but I get the sense that you’re a private man. I wonder if you had any reservations going into this documentary about how much access into your life that you wanted to give the filmmakers.

Yes I did. This is all another view of me that I’m not accustomed to seeing, and certainly not accustomed to sharing with anyone other than the nearest mirror. But I think [director] Peter [Schnall] did a great job with the sound selection, with the colour, with the music choices, with the voices. I’m very happy with how they produced me. Hopefully people will appreciate it and enjoy it.

Do you go through that process with the filmmakers beforehand, about what you’d like to get from it?

I trusted his sense of direction. He’s got the camera. He’s got the film. All I can do is do what I do and hope that he tunes into that quickly before it goes away.

In the documentary, bassist Brandi Disterheft talks about your musical power and your forcefulness when it comes to your time-feel on the bandstand. Do you think that your playing style and that leadership quality is an extension of you as a person?

You’ll have to ask me tomorrow night. Right now, I don’t have the answer to that.

Why do you say that?

I’ll have to answer that question tomorrow night. Right now I’m thinking about going to work. Right now that’s my focal point.

This is probably the way you are all the time — it’s what’s in front of you each and every night, the music you’re going to deliver.

Yes, absolutely. I’m thinking about what I can do. Am I playing the songs too fast? Is the order of the songs not the best choice I could make? That’s part of what I do. I think our presentation makes our music even more worthwhile and easy to listen to.

I’m guessing that passion and attention to detail can be very life-affirming. But does it ever seem like the obsession is too much? Do you ever want to turn that switch off for a while?

Nah, I like being responsible. Give it to me.

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There are a few moments in the documentary where you’re wrestling with retirement and what it means. I get the sense in those moments that you have such a strong commitment to the music that that responsibility plays a role in the desire to keep pushing forward and making great jazz.

Most teachers I’ve met over the years have two things in mind: One is being a complete player, and the [second] is being able to communicate to students what it takes to do what they do. I’m one of those kinds of guys: I’m still trying to be a complete and better player. I’m very interested in sharing with bass players who want to know how I do what I do or get a sense of my process. I’ll stop in a moment to share my ideas with them. I think that’s what teachers all do: They want to propagandize their ideas, their concepts, their messages, their books, their music, their feelings, their behaviours. They want to share that with someone who’s going to be able to carry the flag when they stop playing. I’m right there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.