Ron Carter is not usually known for this sort of thing. When the bassist began hitting his stride in the ‘60s, his reputation had more to do with small combos than big bands. Being a part of Miles Davis’ quintet and leading his own ensemble was more conducive to the post-bop trend leading up to the summer of love. But Carter’s involvement with a big band shouldn’t surprise anybody. Ron Carter’s Great Big Band starts its liner notes with a story of Carter participating in a 1960 recording of “Bilbao Song” for Gil Evans’ Out of the Cool. Evans was so impressed by Ron Carter’s approach to the upright that he arranged the chart starting from the ground up—the ground being Carter himself. Contrary to the bass’ traditional role in a big band, Carter found himself supplying the melody. So even if it took this long in his career to actually front a big band, it doesn’t mean he is any less comfortable in this new role than playing for Davis, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Eric Dolphy or ... I could go on like this.
One thing that Carter goes about differently is that he did not select every member of this big band. He and conductor/arranger/composer Robert M. Freedman agreed on who would hold the “section leader” position, thereby letting the leader decide who to pick for the rest of the section. All in all, it’s six woodwinds, four trombones, and four trumpets and flugelhorns in addition to the piano, bass and drums. The resulting sound is broad and, at times, a little less stiff than the tightly-wound horn lines from big bands that make their personnel size redundant. And yet as big and terrifically sloppy as Carter’s big band can become, this is a card they play close to their chest. When it comes to big bands in general, Ron Carter and the other sixteen really play it cool. Old habits die hard, I suppose. This restraint probably also explains why at 13 tracks in 53 minutes, the whole thing goes by almost too fast.
As far as the choice material goes, it is fortunately varied. Not content to stick to big band era classics, Freedman and Carter venture past the days of Duke in search of less obvious covers including Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”, Tom Harrell’s “Sail Away” and a joyous take on Nat Adderley’s “Sweet Emma”. This doesn’t mean that (decidedly less “cool”) golden oldies aren’t under consideration, though, which a fun and reverent reading of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” clearly shows. Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” rolls out in yuletide brass fashion before locking into its groove. Originals by Carter and Freedman are a great fit for the album overall, especially Freedman’s “Pork Chop” and Carter’s “Opus 1.5 (Theme for C.B.)”. The former is loopy coffee shop bop bliss while the latter is a moving high-rise dedication for painter Carol Byer.
Even though Ron Carter describes Ron Carter’s Great Big Band as “what people who like big bands would like to hear,” there’s more to it than that. The album’s spirit is a collage of old fashioned big band fun, bop revolt intellect, and a devil-may-care manner of choosing the material. Ron Carter’s Great Big Band is one of those mixed bags that ends up being a full blessing.