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Book Review: Ron Carter: Finding The Right Notes by Dan Ouellette

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Ron Carter’s place in the pantheon of jazz greats is assured. One of the world’s foremost bassists, he’s played a significant role in legitimizing the instrument’s place as an integral element in the music’s harmonic tapestry.

Dan Ouellette’s biography of Carter, Finding The Right Notes, doesn’t take the conventional linear approach. Instead, Oullette employs a variety of Snapshots and Colloquies, in effect breaking Carter’s story into episodic chunks. It’s an approach Oullette himself considers unconventional enough that he’s included a “How To Read This Book” section in the introduction. And while it breaks the narrative into digestible pieces, covering specific turning points in Carter’s life in detail, it makes for a somewhat disjointed read.

Carter’s story isn’t the typical rag-to-riches tale of adversity overcome. Born in 1937 into a large family in which virtually every sibling played at least one instrument, Carter is classically trained, showing early promise on the cello. A serious and studious young man, he won a scholarship to the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Switching to bass and determined to make his mark in the classical world, Carter became discouraged at the racism endemic in most orchestras. A chance comment from Leopold Stokowski (“Young man, you play wonderful bass. But I’m in Houston, and my orchestra would never hire you.”) changed the course of his life for good.

Carter turned to jazz and began gigging regularly around New York, soon coming to the attention of Miles Davis. Joining the latter’s famous Quintet in 1963, Carter, along with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams, established new musical frontiers as one of the most famous and influential jazz ensembles of all time. Since then he’s tended to downplay that association in favor of his other roles as a leader, sideman, and composer. His influence is enormous, and he’s one of the most recorded player in jazz history. (He doesn’t even recall all of his own recordings, though when reminded he’s quick with session details).

Oullette does a fine job of detailing Carter’s musical career, though his proclivity for detail is occasionally overwhelming as the chronology of names and dates becomes bewildering. And he shows obvious admiration for his subject, empathetically explaining Carter’s side of things (Carter has a reputation as a rather prickly figure, demanding and occasionally difficult) without bias. An experienced jazz journalist, Oullette makes liberal use of Carter’s and his collaborators’ own words, though that approach occasionally leads to rather pedestrian observations, and at times the book reads more like a series of interviews than a biography.

The thing is, though, that despite his contributions to jazz and his basic human decency… Carter as a person doesn’t emerge as terribly interesting. Yes, he’s crossed paths and played with a who’s who of jazz. He virtually re-defined the role of the bass, assuming a prominent role in the musical tapestry. And he’s driven by a relentless musical curiosity, determined to challenge himself, fellow musicians, and audiences alike in his ongoing quest to ‘find the right notes.’ But his life comes across as little more than a laundry list of gigs, dates, and recording sessions, with complimentary commentary from colleagues who, more often than not, regard Carter with respect rather than affection. Indeed, the most common metaphor throughout is Carter as anchor, both rhythmically (he is, after all, one of the world’s finest bassists) and as moral compass for band mates, many of whom regarded him as a father figure.

But anchors, however admirable, rarely make for interesting stories. There’s simply not much drama surrounding a guy who’s always on time, who’s invariably dressed appropriately, thoroughly prepared, and quietly keeps his own counsel. Perhaps it’s just that Carter occupies a rarified sphere as a master musician. His music tends to the rigorously intellectual, seemingly more concerned with the mathematical precision of harmonic progression than with exuberance or emotional expression.

There’s a great deal of history here, and Oullette is exhaustive in gathering anecdotes and observations. But like a compendium of baseball statistics, there’s little sense of life. (Oullette traces Carter’s early education in detail but barely mentions his wife and children). One learns much about jazz, but in the end Carter himself remains rather reserved and aloof, and his music speaks more about the man himself than his biography reveals.

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