Friday, June 29, 2007

Ron Carter celebrates 70th with all-star ensembles

Photo: Ron Carter in 2005.

By kindofblue

It’s a little unfair to compare Ron Carter’s 70th-birthday JVC Jazz Festival concert, June 27 at Carnegie Hall, to Lee Konitz’s 80th-birthday fete two nights earlier. (And by the way, why did the festival people have such a fetish this year about birthdays — or, more accurately, birth years, since none of the people being so honored were born in June?) Carter and Konitz are very different musicians with different styles and different career arcs. And conceptually the two concerts were apples and oranges, Konitz’s as elaborate and ambitious as Carter’s was simple.

But over the course of the Carter concert, I found it hard to keep myself from thinking, “This is the way to do it.”

Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste. (Surely it is, since many of the critics disagreed with me.) But for me, Carter’s choice of ensembles to perform with — a trio, a duo and two quartets — made for a much more accessible and enjoyable concert than Konitz’s mélange of small group, string quartet, nonet and big band. And although Carter is a sideman by nature and Konitz a soloist, the economical size of the ensembles allowed Carter to shine more brightly, and more clearly, throughout his concert than Konitz had during his.

Indeed, although Carter is an exemplary bass soloist — surely one of the best in jazz — and not exactly shy about showing it, I appreciated the restraint he showed in not giving himself a solo on every number. His reputation is due at least as much to his sensitivity in a supporting role, and that was always evident at Carnegie.

The concert was not perfect. It could have easily been 20 minutes shorter. The second segment, in which Carter played duets with the great guitarist Jim Hall, had some lovely moments (especially an exquisite “Body and Soul”) but never quite caught fire. And the third segment, which held by far the most promise — it reunited Carter, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, the three surviving members of the great mid-sixties Miles Davis Quintet — was disappointing.

The all-star quartet never quite jelled; Shorter seemed strangely diffident, his solos ending almost as soon as they began; and while Billy Cobham on drums was appropriately (and surprisingly) restrained, he didn’t always give the proceedings the kick they needed. Only when Carter and Hancock played “Stella by Starlight” as an impressionistic duet did things really click.

But the first segment, with Mulgrew Miller on piano and Russell Malone on guitar, was exemplary small-group jazz. And the final set was a most impressive showcase for Carter’s current quartet (Stephen Scott on piano, Payton Crossley on drums and Rolando Morales-Matos on percussion). The mood was so low-key as to border on the sleepy at times, but the music was expertly played and quietly moving. This is definitely a group to watch.

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