May 4, 1937, was an historic day in jazz history – on that day, Ron Carter was born. When I humbly asked Ron to be a part of my Patch Kit recording in 2002, I knew he was my all-time favorite bassist and an important figure in the overall history of jazz. Without getting too far into personal anecdotes, however, I will say that I learned two very important things about Ron Carter through that experience of working with him. One, his playing, while awesome on its own terms, is a profound game-changer in an ensemble setting – in the 9 years since then I have had countless experiences where I’ve listened to recordings both new and familiar and heard anew the way in which profound motion in the music can be traced directly to what Ron is doing. Two, he is one of the classiest human beings I’ve ever had the honor of knowing – getting to spend that time with him would have been a tremendous gift even if he hadn’t played a note (even more fortunately for me, though, he did).
In honor of Ron’s birthday I wanted to come up with a Top 10 list, but narrowing down and leaving things out proved to be too hard. So then it was a couple lists. Then it developed into the grandiose idea of the “Top 10 Ron Carter Top 10 Lists” and I started brainstorming for that. Incredibly, that was still not enough. So I came up with the Top 12 Top 10 lists (even then leaving out numerous tracks and some entire categories), with an extra one to make a baker’s dozen and accommodate some of my favorite tracks that didn’t fit easily into these categories.
Diversity was emphasized as I came up with the lists, largely in an attempt to reflect the broad scope of Ron’s career. I didn’t let myself re-use any tracks (even when they might have been no-brainer Top 10 material for two or more categories). I also tried to minimize citing multiple tracks from the same album (though in a couple places, as in the case of Joe Henderson’s Power to the People album, I couldn’t help myself). Some folks may be struck that there are fewer than 10 Miles Davis tracks spread out across the lists, and considering Ron’s extensive and wonderful discography as a band-leader, a case could be made that those recordings are under-represented as well. I will simply say that a) I assure you that I agonized over the lists and left out many important and fabulous tracks, and b) it is quite a testament to Ron’s legacy that there could be cause to quibble over omissions from such a long series of lists! And no, Patch Kit doesn’t wind up being represented on any of the lists, because a) I can’t claim to be objective about it and b) I couldn’t in clear conscience leave any of these other great artists off to stick myself in.
Those who are regular (or even occasional) readers of my Top 10 lists will note that I will change my approach by limiting my commentary to the “#1” track from each list. Frankly, I didn’t really have time to do this in the 1st place, but once I started I couldn’t stop! But writing my reflections on over 130 tunes for one post . . . phew, sorry, no can do.
Here are the categories, in no particular order, with the “#1 pick” for each, along with links to the full lists.
Top 10 Ron Carter Bass Solos
1) “Willow Weep for Me” (from Herbie Hancock’s Hurricane! Live In Swizerland)
The rest of the tracks on this list are bass solos in a more traditional ensemble setting, but the top spot has to go to this unaccompanied tour de force. Ron Carter’s relationship with “Willow Weep for Me” as a solo bass vehicle is quite remarkable – anyone who hasn’t witnessed it live will hopefully get to do so sometime soon! The soul, command and clever orchestration are all on display on this recording.
Top 10 Tracks with Ron Carter on Acoustic Bass alongside Electric Piano
1) “Black Narcissus” by Joe Henderson (from Power to the People)
The blend between Herbie Hancock’s electric piano and Ron’s very acoustic-sounding bass on this track make it sound as if the instruments were meant to be together, which most bassists will tell you is hardly the case. Blending these two sonic worlds is actually quite challenging, and Ron has a great track record of meeting that challenge. This track also displays a stunning level of overall musicality.
Top 10 Ballad Performances with Ron Carter on Bass
1) Nancy Wilson “Suppertime” from (But Beautiful)
For many less-sophisticated bassists and drummers, ballads represent the time to tune out and just play time. Ron, however, is among those who take the opportunity to add an extra layer of rhythmic and timbral nuance, while making every note count. This whole album of Nancy Wilson standards (mostly ballads) is simply gorgeous, and this track gives a particularly clear picture of what Ron brings to the table.
Top 10 Jazz Waltz Performances with Ron Carter on Bass
1) “Little B’s Poem” by Bobby Hutcherson (from Components)
One of the great things about modern jazz in 3/4 time is the multitude of rhythmic and harmonic approaches that can be applied. This list offers a diverse sampling of these approaches. Picking a #1 was quite difficult here, but whenever I hear this track I’m left slack-jawed by its beauty, and specifically by the subtle shifts that Ron makes nearly every chorus to keep things consistently fresh and vibrant.
Top 10 Guest Appearances by Ron Carter on Tracks by Non-Jazz Artists
1) “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack (from First Take)
For a jazz great, Ron has been on a lot of recordings in other genres (or, as I chose not to represent much here, by artists associated with other genres trying their hands at jazz). I dare say this track is one of the best-loved pop ballads recorded in the last 50 years, and anybody who has ever slow-danced to it at a wedding has been able to do so in large part due to solid pulse and bottom-end provided by Ron.
Top 10 Performances with Shifting Grooves with Ron Carter on Bass
1) “Con Alma” by Stan Getz (from Sweet Rain)
It is hard enough to provide a great groove for a song, but what if you need to change that groove once or more? Maintaining a consistent foundation for the tempo while approaching each groove with integrity, well it’s not for the faint-hearted. Ron, thankfully, is not faint-hearted. There’s probably a better term for this category, but hopefully you get the idea. Alongside Chick Corea and Grady Tate, Ron seamlessly spearheads the shifts back and forth between 12/8 Latin and 4/4 swing on this mind-blowing cut of “Con Alma.”
Top 10 Performances of Swinging Tunes in Minor Keys with Ron Carter on Bass
1) “Ptah the El Daoud” by Alice Coltrane (from Ptah the El Daoud)
As I was compiling these lists I was struck by how many hard-swinging tunes Ron has appeared on. I actually had a Top 10 list of just tunes in the key of C Minor, but decided to expand the scope a little. I picked this one as number one in large part because it demonstrates how even in more cutting-edge contexts there is still generally an abundance of groove and pulse if Ron is in the house.
Top 10 Ron Carter Performances on Cello or Piccolo Bass
1) “Three Little Words” by Ron Carter (from Piccolo)
Ron’s diversity is admirable enough even when the discussion is confined to the double bass. However, he has also been a major contributor on the piccolo bass (a higher-pitched instrument designed for/by him) and the cello, sometimes as a soloist and other times as a melodic contributor in an ensemble. This track features a piccolo bass solo that is simply ridiculous. I’m also partial to this album and band, as it marks the beginning of the longstanding and vital relationship between Kenny Barron and Ben Riley. Buster Williams rounds out the group, and those three made a lot of great music together over the years, particularly with the group Sphere.
Top 10 Duo Performances Featuring Ron Carter on Bass
1) “Since I Fell for You” by Houston Person (from Now’s the Time)
While Charlie Haden deserves to be part of the conversation, I don’t think there is a bassist who surpasses Ron in the duo setting. While there are many duo recordings with pianists that I love (not to mention his seminal work with guitarist Jim Hall), for number one I’m going to go with Houston Person. The two of them play with amazing soul, and the saxophone/bass format gives us ample room to observe what Ron does when he is the sole member of the rhythm section.
Top Groove-Jazz Performances with Ron Carter on Bass
1) “Tom Thumb” by Wayne Shorter (from Schizophrenia)
Again, there’s probably a better term for this, but what I’m referring to is essentially danceable, backbeat-inspired music that doesn’t necessarily cross the line to being “fusion.” Ron’s Detroit roots really come into play here (on one occasion I remember him responding nostalgically to my having, with no particular intent, written him a letter on the back of a lead sheet to a Temptations tune), whether it be more rock/soul-inspired music or the requisite boogaloo tune that one found on virtually every Blue Note recording for a period of time. One such example is Wayne Shorter’s “Tom Thumb,” on which Ron hooks up irresistibly with drummer Joe Chambers to back up solos by Wayne, Herbie Hancock and James Spaulding.
Top 10 Tracks by Ron Carter as Leader
1) “Samba de Orfeu” (from Orfeu)
This was a really hard one to narrow down from among all Ron’s sessions as a leader, so I tried to cover a diverse range of sidemen and approaches to style, ensemble and orchestration. While Bill Frisell’s comping is really nice on this track, it’s all about Ron. It also seemed appropriate, given his affinity for the music of Brazil. On a side note, I’ve only heard clips from his new big band record (available only in Japan as of this writing), so anticipated honorable mention to that one
Top 10 Performances of Ron Carter Compositions on Others’ Records (or Co-Led Records) with Ron on Bass
1) “Receipt Please” (from Alone Together with Jim Hall)
Because of his prowess as a bassist it can be tempting to overlook Ron’s prolific contributions as a composer. I figured the best way to cover that is to look at some of the colleagues who have honored him by recording his tunes. This tricky melody is a favorite of mine, and I love the precision with which Ron and Jim Hall play it together.
Top 10 Awesome Performances with Ron Carter on Bass Not On Other Lists
This is the “bonus” in the baker’s dozen, tracks that didn’t fit the other lists but I couldn’t leave off. You’ll have to click on to see what’s #1, but the good news (?) is that I’ve got brief comments for each . . .