Ron Carter is such a revered figure in jazz these days that it is hard to remember that when he first stepped into the spotlight it was to anything less than universal acclaim. Yet in 1963, when he replaced Paul Chambers in the Miles Davis Quintet, some thought that he (along with fellow upstarts Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams) would not be up to the task.
As things turned out, of course, not only did Carter immediately quash any doubts but his “dark” bass patterns also became the steadfast core of Davis’ last great “acoustic” outfit. Having thus silenced the critics, Carter has never looked back and his subsequent career has been as distinguished as it has been enduring. The tall, and these days somewhat somewhat professorial, figure on the cover of the album is assuredly one of the elite — and even a cursory listen to the music herein will tell you why.
Stardust is, conceptually, a tribute to the work of Oscar Pettiford. It is also just about the strongest of some very impressive small group releases doing the rounds in this supposedly tough year for “real” jazz. It might be a little sedate for some tastes but that is about the only possible criticism. This is a performance for which the word consummate was designed. For experience, ability and sheer ease of execution, the players on Stardust have few contemporary rivals and under Carter’s guiding influence, they can do no wrong.
That is one of the many advantages of being at the top of your profession. You have the pick of instrumentalists at your beck and call. Beckoned on this occasion are Sir Roland Hanna, Lenny White, Benny Golson, and Joe Locke. Did I hear you say “Wow!”? I do hope so. These are what used to be known as musicians’ musicians, and if there are better known talents around, there are few who are more valued within the business. Carter has formed an alliance of peers and it is a privilege to spend time with each of them.
The choice of songs shows the same dedication to excellence. Pettiford, of Native- and African-American lineage, had a troubled and tragically short life. He did however, while in the process of being one of the first bass-players to fully assimilate the lessons of bebop, leave us some tunes of such serenity and subtlety that they will never fade. Three of them are here, and while in jazz there is no such thing as the definitive version, Carter and his team do their best to disprove that fact. “Tamalpais”, “Bohemia After Dark”, and “Blues in the Closet” manage to be warm and familiar yet remain fresh and challenging and will all ensure that the repeat button gets more than a little use.
“Tamalpais” has an elegant, chamber music feel to it, with vibraphonist Locke the epitome of a cool groove that runs through the set. Locke is the current leader in the vibes field and makes the most of his three appearances. Pianist Hanna takes the lead role on “Blues in the Closet”, one to which his uncluttered, understated funkiness is well suited. “Bohemia after Dark” is the masterpiece though. The tune is, in almost any version, the ideal noir soundtrack to some yet to be made after-hours jazz club film sequence and here Benny Golson’s light touch carries the melody to exquisite levels. Locke responds with equal delicacy. These pave the way for Carter’s heavier tone to add that essential smokiness and depth. White contributes some extra impetus and Hanna gently provides a cultured veneer. Every player brings something special to the table and the result is an ensemble performance without any tangible weaknesses. All the core values of the album as a whole are on display — craftsmanship, unselfishness, and an enviable sense of the right note in the right place.
The rest of the disc consists of three Carter originals (“Nearly”, “Tail Feathers”, and “That’s Deep”) and two glorious standards. Good as Carter’s own tunes are, it is the two covers that stay in the mind longer. If you thought that the last thing the world needed was more versions of “The Man I Love” and “Stardust”, then Golson’s ethereal tone on the former and Carter’s authority and grace on the latter will win you over. On a session characterised by superior playing, these two respective solos are breathtaking. Without at all losing sight of the intrinsic strengths of the pieces, Golson and Carter claim the songs as their own.
The predominant mood is reflective, sometimes veering towards the melancholic but more often stoical and worldly-wise. It is not a young man’s music, but it is certainly not weary or cynical. Maturity and knowledge are brought to bear on the material but a seam of emotional richness, rather than a demonstration of cleverness, is the goal. That goal is attained comfortably and the resultant wealth is one no lover of jazz will want to miss.
At the centre of it all is Carter — calm, unhurried, respectful of the past but still pushing forwards. As a bass-player he has nothing left to prove. What he does have is the easy confidence of the expert and an undiminished enthusiasm and love for the form. This lights up every aspect of Stardust and makes it not only the most accomplished but also one of the most instantly likeable of this year’s releases. As unpretentious and self-effacing as it is impressive,Stardust is an aptly named delight.