Ron Carter – Friends (1992)

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NICK DERISO: There was a time, and not that long ago, when jazz was the music of this country’s youth — a way to rage against the machine, back when the machines were Desotos and Studebakers.

So we have here a fairly novel idea: Using the staid conventions of classical compositions as a mid-century American improviser once would — that is, with a typical head or theme, and then proceeding from there into edgy, more individualistic thoughts.

The trick is keeping some of the danger while staying true to traditional elements that, clumsily handled, might come off sounding like a cliche.

Composer-pianist John Lewis had the thought some time ago, so it was fitting that the co-founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s composition “Django” appeared on “Friends” (Blue Note). Bassist Ron Carter, even so, seemed just as good at this difficult balancing act.

Carter’s backing band here included young and youngish players like pianist Kenny Barron, drummer Lewis Nash and flute player Hubert Laws, along with four cellists and a harpsichord player.

The selections move from the half-expected (Lewis’ stuff, and a couple of Carter originals), to the truly invigorating — like “Vocalise” from Rachmoninoff, “Prelude No. 4 in E Minor” by Chopin and Eric Satie’s “Gymnopedie.”

Carter, as always, plays with atmosphere, and restaint — though he is never boring.

A member of Miles Davis’ group in the mid- to late-1960s, he was often, back then, simply the bottom. Really, he had to be — what with Tony Williams’ smashingly rhythmic style. On “Friends,” Carter (who had started touring with a cello-dominated nonet a few years before) presides over a far more delicate enterprise, and his playing matches that depth: He improvises in ways both impressionistic and intelligent, lyrical yet frank.

It makes for one of the more challenging, yet strangely familiar recordings in the Davis-related canon. Jazz devotees will find a smooth passage into the classical genre, yet Carter’s legendary sophistication helps provide a new and invigorating take on these ages-old orchestations.

In a way, it’s not all that surprising: Miles-ophiles might not know that the 69-year-old Carter — the music’s most important bassist, with the passing of Ray Brown — actually first played the cello, beginning in the Detroit public school system at age 10. He only ended up in jazz because the 1950s offered little opportunity to use that training in classical groups as an African American.

More than 3,000 recordings — from Davis and Ella, to Jim Hall and Jobim, to A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 crossover hip-hop gem “The Low End Theory” and counting — have followed for the always adventurous Carter. But few are as interesting as this one.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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