"I don't think of the bass player as a sideman."
-- Ron Carter (2000 interview)
"Bass, how low can you go ..."
-- Public Enemy
Most people want to get to the top and stay there. Me, I've always preferred the bottom -- the lower, the better. In fact, there's simply nothing else as gratifying. Some years ago, Public Enemy asked how low I could go, and my subwoofers answered for me. When I hear music, regardless of genre, my ear gravitates first to the bass. Whether it's John Entwistle sending hurried rumblings through the Who's rock, Walter Page swinging behinds for Basie, Aston Barrett laying it thick for the Marley clan, or Larry Graham slapping around that family named Stone; Flea popping Chili Peppers, or Bootsy stretching out James and George; Willie Dixon holding down the Chess board, or Rick Rubin programming def bounce for L.L. and the Beasties, one thing is certain. I love the bass. So much so that I even bought the albums of short-lived alt-mopers Ned's Atomic Dustbin simply because they boasted two bassists bringing double trouble. Many people snore at the thought of a bass solo; I drool for one. And though bassists have been known to successfully lead bands (e.g. Sting, Les Claypool, Jack Bruce, Charles Mingus) on occasion, they're usually relegated to standing in the shadows.
One of the undisputed masters of the bass is Ron Carter. Having appeared on more than 3000 albums, he may indeed be the greatest. Name any jazz heavyweight and odds are that Carter has played and recorded with them: Davis, Hancock, Ellis, Coltrane, Ella, Benson, Cannonball, Jobim are just a few. But it wasn't listening to jazz that tipped me off to him. Like many others, I first became aware of Carter's skills through a different genre: hip-hop. Specifically, it was A Tribe Called Quest's 1991 masterpiece, The Low End Theory, on which Carter's acoustic bass provided much of the low end. True, live acoustic bass had been employed successfully within hip-hop before this landmark album -- see Stetsasonic's classic 1987 cut "Talkin' All That Jazz" -- but it was the Tribe and Carter's collaboration that really illustrated not only hip-hop's natural jazz heritage, but jazz's hip-hoppish future. Most importantly, though, it was the incredibly supple sound of Carter's bass -- heavy, tons of bounce, ticklish, a caress -- that really began to teach me about the infinitely vast world of jazz.
And why not? In addition to being a master musician, Ron Carter has been a professor of music for several decades, having schooled scores of college students for the better. And although he has recently retired, he continues to teach us. The Ron Carter Nonet's latest release is titled, eight plus, and on a scale of ten it rates at least that. Though recorded by master mixer Rudy Van Gelder in his infamous New Jersey-based Van Gelder Studios back in April of 1990, why it took 13 years for this album to see the light of day I've no idea. Ron Carter's nonet is unique if for nothing else but the featured instrumentation: piccolo bass, piano, bass, drums, percussion, and four cellos. Seeing this lineup, I had no idea what to expect. But I assumed that since most of these instruments are traditionally focused more on rhythm than melody (save, the piano, which is ambidextrously both), that rhythm was indeed what I'd most receive. Knowing Ron Carter's high expectations, as well as his continual effort in evolving the bassist from the role as stereotypical sideman, I should have known better. The first surprise is that Carter doesn't even play bass on this album. Well, he doesn't play the traditional double bass. That duty is left to the more than capable Leon Maleson. Instead, Carter plies and struts on his piccolo bass. And if you've never heard a piccolo bass, then you are in for a special treat.
About half the size of a "normal" bass and, hence, of higher pitch, Carter's piccolo bass is tuned above the nonet's rhythm bass player, giving notice that Carter will be in charge of the melodies. In fact, eight plus is nothing if not a showcase for the piccolo bass' potential as melody maker. The other eight instruments, though allowed to shine within each song, play in dutiful support. That's not to say that Carter's piccolo bass forgoes the rhythm that made its maker (Carter himself) famous. He provides plenty of that too.
eight plus could also apply to the number of genres Carter's new album touches. Throughout the album's eight cuts -- seven Carter originals, the other Leon Russell's pop ditty "A Song for You" -- jazz, blues, funk, classical, pop, and tango are all echoed. Moreover, it may come as a surprise that nearly half of the nonet is comprised of cellos, and may send those of you afraid of cheesy string overkill justifiably a runnin'. Fear not. Ron Carter knows how to use his cellos, having first learned his musical chops on one at age eight. The cellos often play the role of a horn section, adding stabs and layers that help push the leads. Not only are the cellos tastefully arranged, they add an aural heft often reserved for lush, classical orchestration.
The entire product is excellent. The song "Eight" launches the album, perfectly illustrating what this nonet is about. For the first 30 seconds, Carter's piccolo bass and Maleson's bass are in lock step, simultaneously establishing the bebop-ish melody and rhythm, plucking in front of the sudden accents of piano and high hat, as the cellos provide reinforcing layers of counterpoint. Then, without fanfare, Carter saunters off on his own as the rest of his band mates hold the fort; for the next three minutes, it is pure pleasure to listen to his deft touch. "O.K." is an upbeat number in the vein of Cannonball Adderley's "Walk Tall" '60s era. The double bass rocks the beat with the tambourine's soul clap, while Carter's "p.b." and Stephen Scott's piano stride and trade riffs over veteran Lewis Nash's funky drums. The bass is heavy and I guarantee you will at least tap one foot, maybe two.
"A Song for You" is an interesting choice for the album, and indicates Carter isn't afraid of cheesy pop ballads. A song originally recorded in 1971 by Andy Williams, this is grocery store speaker sap at its finest. What's remarkable is that Carter's group succeeds in turning the sap into believable, and beautiful, lament. Again, the piccolo bass leads the way, showing off its uncanny blend of blues, jazz, and classical tones, with the cellos bringing waves of delicate reinforcement. The album ends, finally, with a bounce. Don't be surprised if you hear any part of the first 30 seconds of "A Closer Walk with Thee" sampled on a future hip-hop album. The walking basses lay down a fat groove, locked in with the drum kit and tambourine, and by the time the cellos have entered with their wistful melody, you'll be hoppin' and skippin' towards your stereo's repeat button.
Clocking in at just under an hour, this album is quite a lesson for the bass savvy student. And, I imagine, much cheaper than hiring the pro that produced it. eight plus is a good deal indeed.