Live review: Ron Carter Trio/The Basement June 2011

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Music gig review: jazz

In art, life and music there is plain, there is pretty, and then there is beautiful. The catch-all adjective of tonight’s support, Kate Noonan, appeared to be ‘beautiful’ – she used the word to describe her beautiful band (Elixir trio with guitarist Steve Magnusson and husband, soprano saxophonist Zac Hurren), the beautiful poet Tom Shapcott (who collaborated on lyrics for many of her current songs), the beautiful artist’s retreat of Bundanon (where the songs were written), the beautiful audience; even the beautiful sound guy. Millions adore her, and I can see why, but tonite’s vapid mix of poetic lyrics, artist’s retreat ambience and eggshell porcelain skeins of notes merely added up to… pretty.

Towards the end of her set, Noonan asked us to get our toilet breaks and fidgets out of the way in the interval so we could afford Ron Carter’s Trio full respect. The Ron Carter Trio didn’t need her slightly schoolmarmish help – you see, these guys really are beautiful.

Ron Carter, pianist Mulgrew Miller and guitarist Russell Malone took the stage in sharp suit and tie to a raucous wave of applause from the packed Basement. Carter started the sinewy bass pedal riff of ‘Cedar Tree’ (Malone’s tribute to pianist Cedar Walton) and they were off. Unlike Noonan’s trio who all held the three corners of the sound fabric in fingertip floating harmony, Carter’s Trio pulled and tugged it all around, bending it out of shape and chewing at the edges. When guitarist Malone dropped a quote from The Champs’ 1958 hit ‘Tequila’ into his solo, you knew this was going to be (yes, Kate) fun.

Ron Carter is arguably the major bass presence of postwar 20th century jazz. His playing has crossed so many genres and he has played with so many great names of his time that he remains top of that list. There may be others more virtuosic and more forward thinking, but Ron Carter has always been there when it was happening, a calm yet unmovable presence – a mountain of strength and tradition. And it is this tradition that flows through all he does. To hear the opening notes of ‘Cedar Tree’ – that tone, that style – was to feel in the presence and slipstream of the tradition of modern jazz.

Despite some obviously post-Ornette Coleman touches by guitarist Malone, the entire set was coolly conservative in concept – the Trio covered ‘My Funny Valentine’ and Malone’s feature solo was a luscious reading of ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’. The originals, drawn from the Trio’s recordings were equally straight ahead. Remember, this is the man who left Miles Davis’s hair-raising 60’s quintet with Tony Williams, because Miles was pushing him to play more and more electric Fender bass.

Pianist Mulgrew Miller – himself one of the great jazz stylists – couldn’t have been a more perfect fit for Carter’s forward-yet-backward direction. The drummerless trio format echoed the great 1950’s trios of Oscar Peterson, yet Miller had more gospel and (utterly delicious) blues in his playing than the hyper-driven Peterson. The lack of a drummer also served to keep a lid on the dynamics of the night – even when the Trio was flying through dizzying ensemble sections or trading cheeky licks, the cool remained. A drummer would have pushed the heated sections into the red and lost so much that was truly beautiful here.

What raises the truly beautiful far and above the merely ‘pretty’ is the depth that a faint ugliness here and there can bring. A smeared note, a harsh beat, a chuckle in church – these are the exceptions that make the rule. Jazz has always held itself as a retainer of these human blemishes in an overly perfect musical world where conservatoria rule. But it takes the unselfconscious mastery of a group like The Ron Carter Trio to prove it to us again and again.

Published June 2011 on


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