Ron Carter’s Big Band
New York, NY
October 22, 2022
The city of New York hosts plenty of theaters and a wealth of cafes, restaurants, pubs, and clubs but it is the jazz clubs there that have been an enduring beacon of musical genius in this city. Any self-respecting jazz head has to make a pilgrimage to any of the city’s renowned jazz venues and experience its ambiance and excitement. Birdland jazz club is an essential part of the city’s jazz history and culture. Just entering this venerated hall of jazz is like walking into a history class as every wall is covered with framed photographs of jazz musicians that have played there. One felt humbled by the masters who have made this place what it still is—historically important and relevant in today’s music climate. There are not many jazz clubs that have become an “institution” with such taste as Birdland. It truly is one of those music temples built for witnessing and honoring musical excellence.
During October 2022 renowned bassist and composer Ron Carter had a month-long residency, with two shows each evening with different configurations thus showing a wider pallet of his projects. Carter’s career stretches back more than half a century and he has crossed paths or shared stages with nearly everything and has put his stamp on from the smallest combos to the big band. Not only that, he has willingly shared his extensive knowledge in schools and universities. Around the time of his residency, a documentary titled the same as his autobiography “Finding the Right Notes” was premiered. The documentary is a beautiful portrait of this renowned composer and bassist and sheds a light both on the world behind the music and his musical journey. So, it was an important and eventful period for Carter on many levels.
A Ron Carter gig is an old-school type of event where the music played hits both the head and the heart. Sometimes these two are in balance, but most often they are not. Carter often works in small settings, either with his renowned trio or in duo, sometimes his nonet, and 10 years ago he did his first big band album and it was a real treat to see his big band at the bandstand on this particular evening. His stellar big band was in full flow at Birdland with every band member being consistently tasteful and commanding. This didn’t feel like a repertoire band and its delivery either. From the opening number “For Toddlers Only,” the sound of the big band permeated every corner of the club and the players exuded a kind of spirited poise.
The program consisted roughly of selections from his two previous big band records Ron Carter’s Big Band (Sunnyside Communicat, 2011) and Ron Carter and the WDR Big Band My Personal Songbook (In+Out Records, 2014) and more. From the off, the band hit the ground and was running. What they were able to do was amplify the uniqueness of each piece in the repertoire as the band explored a wealth of tonal colors, grooves, and styles. Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” boasted more applause from the audience. The band flowed with dazzling dexterity through this track and it was dotted with brilliant solos from the saxophonist and the piano. This was followed by Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” with its distinct Latin flavor and boastful melodies.
“Cut and Paste” is a Ron Carter original that was first published on Mr. Bow-Tie, (Blue Note, 1995) but was rearranged for a big band in 2014 for Carter’s performance with the WDR Big Band. This track was a real stomper propelled by the constantly excellent drummer Payton Crossley. With dazzling dexterity, the band simply levitated throughout this track. All the Carter tells were in place—ear-worm bass lines, motivic melodies, a sense of unquestioned elasticity as his fingers flowed smoothly across the double bass’ neck as they were oiled. His humor was there as well. When he finished introducing the band members, at the end, he introduced himself as “I’m just a guy with the microphone.”
While the rousing tunes were clear favorites, the slower compositions also allowed the band to stretch out and explore, something with much zest. The horns with the sonorous blend of brass textures over the mid-tempo grooves, showed delicacy and excellent tonal subtitles as the soloists traded tasty solos. On “Buhaina Buhaina” the band brought out the energy and grace. This was a romp where guitarist Russell Mallone shone the brightest. He played the guitar with a negligent grace that comes only with exceptional technique. His melodic flair and lightness of touch made his playing a delight as at the same time it was frenetic and laid-back. The set concluded with Carter’s original “Eddie’s Theme.”
The band brought together to play this music was top-notch, a who’s who of young and not-so-young jazz talent. With their melding of dynamic solos, crisp ensemble work and imaginative arrangements, Ron Carter’s Big Band was spectacular. This was a rousing, spirited celebration of live music and a joy to witness.
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