Groovin Low with the Ron Carter Trio

My ideal record collection looks something like the list of albums that feature Ron Carter. His discography is appealing because he was at the forefront of major innovations in post-bop jazz and also because he pursued that experimental impulse in ways that were intellectually challenging and yet widely popular.

After graduating from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, some of his first sessions were with ambitious experimentalists who advocated a new approach to jazz. In 1960 he played cello on Yusef Lateef’s The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef and Eric Dolphy’s Out There. These two bandleaders were experimenting with multi-instrumentalism, incorporating non-traditional jazz voices like oboe and bass clarinet. The cello’s lyricism blends seamlessly with these bands’ evocative, unusual sonorities, always pushing somewhere irrevocably out there.

Ron Carter is best known for the next period of his career, from 1963 to 1968, during which time he anchored Miles Davis’ second “great quintet.” Led by Miles, the group included Herbie Hancock on piano, Tony Williams (who joined the band at 17 years old) on drums, and Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone. Together, the compositions loosened up. They took a rhythmically focused approach to thematic development, which allowed them to dig more deeply into collective improvisation.

Simultaneously, Carter was working with Herbie Hancock on his Blue Note solo albums: Empyrean Isles (1964), Maiden Voyage (1965), and Speak Like a Child (1968). They were joined on trumpet and cornet by Freddie Hubbard, but it remained the rhythm section from Miles’ famous quintet. Carter, Hancock, and Hubbard teamed up several more times during the late-60s and early-70s, notably for the Hubbard-led CTI albums Red Clay (1970), Straight Life (1970), and First Light (1971).

Ron Carter’s playing on these records illustrates the fluidity and interconnectedness of the black musical tradition–what Amiri Baraka called the “changing same.” For precisely this reason, Carter’s skills were in wide demand. In 1969, he recorded with Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack as well as Pharaoh Sanders and Alice Coltrane. Carter didn’t just play on both sides of the line, though, he resolved the tension between popular appeal and vanguard sensibility by making records that don’t fit easily into either category.

Around the same time, Carter joined musicians like Roy Ayers, Eddie Harris, Les McCan, Shirley Scott, Lou Donaldson, and Donald Byrd, who were incorporating new technologies and effects, synthesizers, and electric instruments. They were slurring the line between jazz and funk. Improvisation was oriented around the groove; their experimentation was rhythmic. Carter’s interlocking bass patterns speak to both the head and heart. His playing  is both free and funky.

Carter’s appearances on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records attest to his fluency in divergent improvisational modes, including the literary. He backed a reading of the radical journalist Pete Hamil’s anti-Vietnam article, Massacre at My Lai (1969); two years later he helped Gil Scott-Heron transform his now-classic poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” for the album Pieces of a Man (1971). The original version was loose and off-the-cuff, but with fuller instrumentation and a thicker back-beat the track became the driving, insistent classic for which Scott-Heron is best remembered today.

As much as Gil Scott-Heron is said to have paved the way for rap, in some ways it is Ron Carter who has contributed more to hip-hop music. His catalogue has been scoured for samples, and he has contributed new material for hip hop groups. A Tribe Called Quest might not have theorized the low end as they did without Carter’s balancing act, swaying and bending between rhythm with melody.

Carter is one of the most reliably innovative musicians in the jazz tradition. As a result he ranks high among the genre’s most recorded bassists. The following is from the Ron Carter Trio performance I attended last November. In addition to Carter’s excellent work, the performances of guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Donald Vega were inspired. The open sound of this rhythm section (without a drummer) meant that percussion was each musicians’ responsibility. Even as the pulse is essential to their cohesion, the beat is inferred, inflected, and implied.

The performance recalled for me the poem “Groovin’ Low,” by A.B. Spellman, in which the speaker enters the music “from the bottom up”:

so don’t look for me in the treble
don’t look for me in the fly
staccato splatter of the hot young horn
no, you’ll find me in the nuance
hanging out in inflection & slur
i’m the one executing the half-bent
dip in the slow slowdrag
with the smug little smile
& the really cool shades

Esperanza Spalding

I found out after the fact that the Tinariwen concert a few weeks ago was the second Grammy Award winner I’d seen in October. I recently learned that they won the World Music award this year for their album Tassili.

But earlier that month, I was fortunate to have caught Esperanza Spalding in Pittsburgh at the Byham theater. She won Best New Artist in 2011 for Chamber Music Society (her third studio effort). She was the first jazz musician to do so—and with competition like Justin Bieber no less. It’s good to see some grown-folks’ music getting its due.

Her recent follow up album, Radio Music Society, is more radio-friendly. It has a higher R&B quotient—a heavier dose of funk. The lyrics deal more plainly in matters of the heart. But the album’s forthright political edge gives it balance and proportion. Spalding’s versatility is reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield or Nina Simone. Her first single from the album, “Black Gold,” is a celebration of black pride very much in the tradition of Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” or Simone’s “Young, Gifted, and Black.”

Spalding’s back-to-back albums, each named for different Societies, are aesthetic counterparts. As the names suggest, Chamber Music is acoustic and string heavy, while Radio Music is horn-driven and oriented by the back beat. On the latter, Spalding plays a fretless Fender jazz bass in addition to the upright. Her funky ostinato lines have deep pockets.







The later album takes this conceptual impulse a step further. When Radio Music was released last March, the digital version was accompanied by an hour-long music video that linked the songs into a loose narrative. The plot adds new twists and an additional political significance. Especially on “I Can’t Help It” and “Hold on Me,” the love stories’ progressive gender politics treats varied sexual orientations as a fact of life and love—both requited and un-.

Her performance at the Byham drew on this conceptual and political vocabulary. The bandstand was covered in the image of a black boombox, the radio dial clearly illuminated. When the band began, they played fits and starts of songs in different genres punctuated by static, mimicking the frequency spectrum.

When she took the stage, she welcomed the audience and immediately asked, “But what does it mean: Radio Music Society?” The band then passed around solos, stipulating some terms. Spalding began to tie the songs together with her introductions, drawing on similar narrative techniques as the film.

Getting into “Land of the Free,” she told the story of Cornelius Dupree, Jr., who was proved innocent after having spent 30 years in jail. One prisoner, Spalding reminded us, among 2.3 million. The proceeds from the merchandise sales that night went to the Innocence Project, the organization that aided Dupree’s defense.

All night, the arrangements were fresh and the improvisations were dramatic, even transcendent. Spalding is a true band leader and a gifted composer; as a bassist, there’s not as many role models for that. Mingus comes to mind; and like him, Spalding bears the influence of Ellington.

Even while holding down the low end, her vocal performance is astounding. She’s at least a triple threat. These are the first three tunes of the evening, including the introduction.

I had hoped—maybe just a little—to hear a tune from her earlier album, Esperanza. I must have listened to her cover of the Milton Nascimento tune “Ponta de Areia” a few dozen times in recent weeks. That song became known to American audiences by way of the Wayne Shorter album Native Dancer, but Spalding owns it for herself.

Nonetheless, this was one of the finest performances I have seen: thoughtful and well-rehearsed, but never contrived. The musicianship was of the highest caliber, and it was delivered with equal doses of humor and sincerity.