After spending the 1960s playing upright bass in the decade's most musically advanced jazz ensembles, Ron Carter found himself in even greater demand in the 1970s. But jazz tastes were changing. The creeping domination of rock and soul over the music business was sucking the commercial air out of traditional jazz. Clubs faced dwindling audiences and many closed or started booking rock acts. Most record labels transferred or fired in-house jazz champions, leaving jazz divisions woefully under-financed or shuttered. To continue earning a living, many jazz artists embraced fusion, a rock-jazz mix. But fusion wasn't the only path to paying the bills—or sole jazz hybrid.
Sensing that a large percentage of jazz listeners were left cold by fusion's icy music-school sophistication and psychedelic tone, producer Creed Taylor [pictured] started recording, packaging and marketing a warmer jazz-soul hybrid through his CTI Records label. Buyers of CTI albums would be presented not only with a lusher, more relaxed jazz sound but also with high-gloss album covers adorned with stunning full-color visuals by photographer Pete Turner. Given his classical training and close professional relationship with Taylor, Ron recorded regularly for CTI in the 1970s.
In this final installment of our conversation, Ron comments on his dates for CTI Records, the criticism Taylor has received over the years for commercializing jazz during this period, and when he finds the time to listen to recordings of jazz masters:
JazzWax: Was there a rivalry among bass players in the 1960s?
Ron Carter: No, not at all. We were just all sharing the same problem—how to go from point A to point B. And we all complained about the pianos at clubs being out of tune.
JW: Which club had the best piano?
RC: None of them. They were all mediocre, man.
JW: Did you like Antonio Carlos Jobim as a person? You recorded on Wave (1967), Stone Flower (1970) and Tide (1970).
RC: He was a lovely man. He was a guy who wasn’t affected by his success. What impressed me most of all: I was a stranger to him. He had never met me before. And he probably had not have even heard the records I made. But after I got to the studio, he gave me a lead sheet. I asked what should I do with it. He said play what you play and we can have a good time. And that’s what I proceeded to do.
JW: Did you enjoy making Wave, which truly is a landmark album?
RC: Great record, man. Urbie Green had a fantastic sound, man. He voices his chords just right, and he listens to the rhythm section. It’s so easy to play with someone like Urbie.
JW: Produced for A&M records in 1967 when Creed Taylor was there, Wave was an early model for CTI. Was recording for CTI starting in 1969 fun? It must have been the opposite of your musical experience with Miles.
RC: I’ve always been fortunate to play good music, so it really wasn’t the opposite of anything. At CTI, you got to see enough of the same players every week. So you knew what their quirks were and what their idiosyncrasies were.
JW: How far in advance did musicians prepare for those sessions?
RC: Most people don’t realize that we often just looked at a lead sheet and made an arrangement out of it. That was a challenge. To make it sound like we were all there at the same time, musically, and that we had all thought out what we were playing pretty far in advance. That was seldom the case, if ever. The challenge was to make it sound polished—but not so much that we sounded like the same set of sidemen put together for specific projects. There were enough great players on all those sessions to make it feel like a working band. That’s what impressed me.
JW: The CTI charts weren’t carefully worked out?
RC: Not by us. Maybe Creed [Taylor] and the bandleader and arrangers did. The rhythm section would go in and see the charts for the first time.
JW: Do you think Creed went too far? Did he make jazz too commercial?
RC: Not at all. The music was beautiful and the packaging is what people desired from the records. They are the most outstanding photographs on LP covers of all time. Pete Turner [pictured] did them. They were outstanding pieces of art. People saw the covers before they heard the music. That encouraged them to hear what was inside—and to keep those records out rather than putting them away. I don’t know how people define commercial packaging. I kind of let that stuff go and don’t worry about it, man. [photo by Doug Kuntz]
JW: What albums on which you’re playing bass are your favorites?
RC: [Laughing] I’m still looking for them.
JW: You must put a record of yours on once in a while and say, “Wow, that’s some pretty remarkable stuff.”
RC: When I do, I always say I missed that note or I wish I could try that again. You have to understand, when I make a disc, I don’t think in terms of, “Will I want to hear this again.” My view is, “Did I play the best I could? Did I help these guys play better because I’m standing here?” If I get that feeling when my day’s over, I don’t have to review my work later to feel justified in being there.
JW: Why is it so hard to hear yourself play on an album?
RC: It’s difficult because I hear things—I may hear a note that’s a little sharp or flat. So many factors go into a recording. Depending on your focus and how complete it is, you are going to be concerned with your intonation, the notes, where you were on the bass, how the instrument sounded, what you could have played differently. I think any artist who’s self-critical and who’s intent on playing better the next time around hears defects that most people don’t call defects, and they disturb him or her—I’m speaking for the music community broadly. I don’t’ get bent out of shape. But when I hear the defects, I wish I had the opportunity to fix them in some kind of way.
JW: Who are you listening now for inspiration or enjoyment?
RC: Enjoyment is a better word. Right now I have on my turntable the Brandenburg Concertos, 1 through 6. Waiting to be played are the Goldberg Variations with Glenn Gould, and But Beautiful, an album I did with Nancy Wilson, Hank Jones, Gene Bertoncini and Grady Tate in 1969. Also, I recently recorded a hip-hop type record about a year ago that was recently sent to me. I haven’t heard it yet but I’m looking forward to hearing how it sounds.
JW: Do you still listen to Oscar Pettiford and the old timers?
RC: When I have a moment. I have them on my computer, so when I’m paying my bills or trying to figure stuff out like how awful the day went [laughing], I’ll listen to all those guys who played without technical advantages—like Pettiford [pictured], George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Joe Benjamin and Ike Isaacs. All those guys played so great without the technological advantages we have now. Today we have better strings, better recording facilities and better stereo equipment.
JazzWax tracks: In many ways, Creed Taylor's test kitchen for CTI's jazz-soul-pop albums of the 1970s were the successful Wes Montgomery pop-jazz albums he produced at A&M Records in the 1960s. Taylor also tore a page out of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff's playbook by using a core set of top musicians on multiple dates at CTI and treating album covers as works of art.
By featuring marquee jazz players backed by symphony-sized ensembles and recording a careful mix of pop and soul hits, jazz standards and originals, Taylor succeeded in attracting sophisticated listeners. Adding high gloss covers and magazine-quality photography, the albums were complete audio-visual packages. Ron had recorded regularly for Taylor in the 1960s, so Ron was a natural choice when the number of recording sessions ramped up.
Ron's first date for CTI was on flutist Hubert Laws' Crying Song, recorded in September 1969. Dozens of sessions for the label followed. Perhaps my favorite CTI dates featuring Ron are Grover Washington Jr.'s Inner City Blues, George Benson's White Rabbit (1971) and Body Talk (1973), Eumir Deodato's Prelude (1972), Milt Jackson's Sunflower (1972) and Jim Hall's Concierto (1975).
Because CTI albums are records you love to hate—and hate to love—I'm sure I'll receive e-mails from readers listing their favorites. In fact, enough years have passed that it's probably a good time now to revisit the catalog to hear whether many of these albums are as bad as critics have claimed over the years or much better than we thought.