Ron Carter (b), Russell Malone (g), Donald Vega (p)
The Regattabar, Cambridge, MA; Saturday, May 12, 2018, 7:30pm (1st set)
After years of neglecting to see jazz legends before they’re no longer with us, I’ve been on a mission to correct this. In May of last year, Boston’s Scullers Jazz Club presented Roy Haynes’ Fountain of Youth Band. The expression “living legend” gets tossed around with such frequency that it can seem that the only criterion for the moniker is the attainment of a certain age. Roy Haynes, in contrast, is perhaps one of the handful of living jazzmen for whom “living legend” falls far short of expressing his importance and legacy. Seeing him was one of the highlights of my life as a music lover.
Last night was another such experience. Ron Carter was in town last year with his trio, but for whatever reason, I didn’t go. When I saw him on the Regattabar calendar this time, I decided to get tickets. Located on the third floor of the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square, the club has reserved seating at tables for four, which form a semi-circle around the “bandstand.” I use quotes because there is no stage or riser of any kind; not ideal for those seated in the back. Fortunately, Mrs. Jazzopath, Jazzopath, Jr., and I had the great view shown above.1 (The one minor complaint we had wasn’t about the view, but the not infrequent CLANKING of glasses emanating from the bar during quiet sections. Hurt the vibe a couple of times.)
In a well-paced 75 minute set, Carter’s trio played a thoroughly entertaining mix of styles and tempos, encompassing standards and originals, hard bop and bossa nova. (See the full set list below.)
The lion’s share of the solo time was given to the astonishingly virtuosic Donald Vega, so much so that one might have thought he or she was watching The Donald Vega Trio. But he wasn’t showboating; every note meant something. During one uptempo solo, he did one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen a pianist do. Using just his right hand, he played a descending scale in a pattern of triplets, harmonized in thirds. I’d never even considered that such a feat was possible at the tempo he played it at, but he nailed it and it killed. Standout tunes for Vega included “My Funny Valentine” (dedicated to Miles Davis) and the blistering “Limehouse Blues.”
Despite some nice solos on “Opus 5”, which was a bossa nova for Antonio Carlos Jobim, and “My Funny Valentine”, Russell Malone seemed content to play more of an accompanist role. And he did it well, comping four to the bar like a swing guitarist and scratching out rhythms on muted strings as a de facto percussionist. No modernist, Malone’s approach to jazz guitar is rooted in the techniques of his early influences, such as George Benson, Kenny Burrell, and Charlie Christian. In practice, this translates to a lot of blues lines in his solos and a traditional approach to chord voicings. Playing his custom Gibson L-5 through an AER Compact 60, his style is a timeless one, although the tone he gets using that amp may be an acquired taste for some, as it is very bright and “acoustic” sounding. I loved it, in any event.
Despite the bona fides of his band mates, it was difficult to take one’s focus away from the band leader. When Carter (who, at 81, looks and moves like he’s 10 years younger) plays, his apparently bottomless supply of ideas and techniques creates music that demands attention. This is not to say that he is intentionally drawing attention to the bass, a la Jaco Pastorius or Stanley Clarke. No, the man is the most recorded bassist in jazz history for a reason. He is a master musician, first and foremost. Everything he does, is in service to the song. A good example of this was a crazy technique he employed while comping on “Autumn Leaves.” He fingered a note with his left hand, plucking it routinely with his right hand. Nothing special. But while he did that, he simultaneously plucked two strings with his left hand, creating a chord, and it sounded cool! He did this so unobtrusively that I would guarantee that few people in the audience even noticed.
Toward the end of the set, Carter did an unaccompanied solo that incorporated many of the techniques for which he has become famous. Amidst the double stops, chords, harmonics (both natural and artificial), “drumming” on the strings, and melodies that spanned the neck, he inserted both a genuinely funny quote from “You Are My Sunshine” and played—pizzicato—a section of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. (As many might know, Carter began his musical education as a cellist.)
At the end of the set, the appreciative audience gave a standing ovation and the band took their bows. And with no “backstage” to speak, the trio walked through the crowd and exited into the hallway outside the club (remember, it’s in a hotel). I assumed they’d probably just return to their rooms in the hotel for a break between sets, so I was surprised that when we exited the club, there they were, mingling with fans. People had already lined up to speak to Ron and get a picture with him. Normally, I chicken out of such photo ops, but Jazzopath, Jr. emboldened me, so we got in line. It’s not every day you get to meet a living legend.
The set list:
“My Funny Valentine”
Have you ever seen Ron Carter live? What’s your favorite album that he plays on? Please comment below!
1. Coincidentally, I had a nearly identical view when I saw guitarist Mike Stern, almost exactly 25 years ago, in May 1993.↩