Music

Ron Carter: A record-breaking jazz legend returns to Tokyo

Ron Carter says interest from Japan keeps him playing at the age of 82

by William Archambeault

Contributing Writer

“I think people still want to hear the old man playing on an antique,” says Ron Carter. “And as long as they want that idea, I’m kind of available.”

Carter, 82, is one of jazz’s most prolific figures. In addition to recording dozens of albums as a band leader, he has worked with most of the genre’s big names, including Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Milt Jackson.

In 2015, Guinness World Records handed him the title of “Most recorded jazz bassist” for more than 2,200 individual recording credits. And that number has continued to grow in the years since.

Carter’s Golden Striker Trio is set to play two nights at Blue Note Tokyo on April 10 and 11 (current circumstances permitting). His trio will also appear alongside shamisen player Fumiyoshi at Ryutopia Concert Hall in Niigata on April 12 for an event dubbed “Legend of Strings.”

Over six decades into his career, Carter is still experiencing new firsts. He says that his collaboration with Fumiyoshi will be his first time performing with a shamisen player.

“I expect we’ll have a good time with the meeting of the minds. I’ve heard his records. I know what he’s able to do,” says Carter a few days before beginning rehearsals in New York. “I’m anxious to see how I can combine my concept of the bass sound with his instrument.”

Carter can’t recall how many times he’s been to Japan, but estimates he’s gone through three or four passports during his numerous trips to the country. He first visited in 1964 as part of Miles Davis’ band.

“I was amazed at the audience’s response to the music,” he says of that tour. “I was quite surprised to see their presence at the airport. I was surprised to realize how long the flight was.”

Between 1963 and 1968, Carter recorded and toured the globe with Davis. He was a member of Davis’ second great quintet, which also featured tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams. This incarnation of the band is widely regarded as one of the many highlights of Davis’ storied musical career. It also propelled the careers of the then-young band members, who went on to become some of the biggest names in jazz.

Carter’s first visit to Japan was with an extremely short-lived version of the quintet that featured tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers instead of Shorter. A live album, “Miles in Tokyo,” documents the quintet’s July 14, 1964 performance at Tokyo Kosei Nenkin Kaikan. The album, originally only released in Japan, is notable for jazz fans because it is the only record that documents Rivers’ short time in Davis’ quintet. Rivers had joined the group just before the tour and was subsequently never brought back into the group afterward.

Davis quickly replaced Rivers with Shorter. In addition to his instrumental powers, Shorter brought his composition skills to the band and wrote many of the tunes the quintet recorded in the late 1960s. When asked to compare playing with Rivers and Shorter in Davis’ quintet, Carter is hesitant to dive too deep.

“Wayne was a pure composer. He brought a different sense of conceptual compositions to the band. He was very curious as to how we would handle it and he trusted our interpretation of his music,” says Carter. “Sam never had that opportunity to display those talents with the band, so I’m not really sure how you could compare the two, other than Sam played really good and Wayne played good as well.”

Carter ultimately stopped working with Davis in 1968 as a result of his reluctance to trade his upright bass for the bass guitar. Carter’s playing can be heard on 11 of Davis’ studio albums.

Although his days with Davis were behind him, Carter still found plenty of work with others, and recorded many albums as a bandleader. Carter, like many prominent American jazz musicians, also recorded on a slew of albums originally released only in Japan. These include solo albums and titles with high-profile names like Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones and McCoy Tyner.

In addition to working with some of the biggest names in American jazz, Carter has, over multiple decades, recorded with major Japanese players such as saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and trumpeter Terumasa Hino.

“He trusts my judgment about the notes,” says Carter of Hino. “He also understands that I regard him as a wonderful player and that I trust his response to my comments. … I’ve found that’s really helpful for making the project successful. It allows me to be more amenable to making a suggestion, knowing that the bandleader will take it into consideration.”

Carter has even lent his face and bass to domestic brands. He appeared in an ad for Suntory White whisky in 1986 and was also featured in a Tully’s Coffee ad in 2007. Both ads feature a sharply-dressed Carter plucking at the strings of his bass. Carter’s logic behind why Japanese companies have reached out to him to represent their brands is simple.

“I look great, I play nice notes,” he says with a laugh.

Nice notes are exactly what listeners can expect from his planned upcoming shows. His Golden Striker Trio features pianist Donald Vega and guitarist Russell Malone.

“We hope that when we’ve left the stage, we have left you with some melodies and wonderful memories of what jazz can sound like,” says Carter.

He also notes that the recent passing of pianist and longtime collaborator McCoy Tyner won’t directly impact the band’s material at the shows.

“It may impact our feelings because we all loved him for long periods and miss him, but it won’t affect our library at all,” says Carter, who had performed in Japan alongside Tyner in multiple different configurations. Tyner’s live albums “Passion Dance” and “Counterparts: Live in Tokyo” both feature Carter backing the pianist during a July 28, 1978, performance at Denen Coliseum in Tokyo.

Carter says he has no plans to retire, but had hoped to stop touring internationally sooner in his career. He claims industry changes in New York have forced him and other jazz musicians to continue making long international trips on a regular basis.

“I’m going where the work is and it happens to be in Japan and Europe,” says Carter. The bassist says he has increased his work as a music teacher in recent years and may one day choose that over international touring.

“But, in the meantime, I’m enjoying the option to play wherever I can find the music that is available to me and us, the band members,” says Carter.

Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio performs at Blue Note Tokyo on April 10 and 11, and at Ryutopia Concert Hall in Niigata on April 12. For more information, visit www.roncarter.net.

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