Jazz Legend Ron Carter Reflects on His Relentless Musical Quest in Docu ‘Finding the Right Notes’

Direct, precise and no filler — that’s a good way to describe Ron Carter, the tall, eloquent elder statesman of jazz.

For many musicologists, he’s considered one of the great virtuosos – if not the GOAT — of the upright acoustic bass. He is the most recorded bassist in the world, having performed on more than 2,200 records, according to Guinness World Records (although Carter will quickly tell you the list was short by hundreds).

For all his accomplishments, a new documentary on his life leaves Carter a bit awestruck. “Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes,” which debuts Oct. 21 on PBS, took nearly six years to film.

“I’ve only seen the trailer for like a few minutes, and I was like almost embarrassed that they were talking about me,” Carter says. “I was like, ‘Man, they are talking about me!’ I haven’t gotten over that yet.”

Produced and directed by Peter Schnall, the two-hour documentary is a patiently detailed love letter to Carter that explores his work from the beginning of his prolific career that spans nearly seven decades.

Carter was nearing his 80th birthday when work began on the documentary, but you don’t perform on countless stages and thousands of recordings over 60 years without being in constant movement. The production team had to be flexible enough to catch Carter at the right time to film segments, as even now, the jazz mastermind may be on any stage or in a recording studio in New York to France to Japan. The word “stationary” doesn’t fit in his repertoire.

Carter’s meteoric rise began in the early 1960s with one of the most legendary ensembles in the history of genre, the second Miles Davis Quintet. Only in his mid-20s at the time, Carter’s work with Davis helped push the jazz forward along with the piano wizardry of a young Herbie Hancock, the late drum prodigy Tony Williams and the sublime tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

The title of the Carter’s documentary is a tailored fit to his approach to art, and to his life in general, he says.

“Notes are very important to what we do,” Carter explains. “Notes make what we do happen. The order of the notes does a lot of things coming in the form of a song; coming in the form of chord progressions; coming in the form of developing skills. These notes we look for are the essence of, it’s just like having Jell-O without the gelatin. It’s like having just plain water. Gelatin

keeps the water in the bowl and keeps the water thick. It is as important as the cow to the milk, so to speak.”

For musicians who are intentional in performing at the highest peak within their artform, they must be diligent in finding a certain set of notes – or a specific note – that gives the music a particular value or “emotional impact,” Carter continues.

“And every now and then we find that note. But there are also groups of those notes, and whatever combination you happen to stumble on makes that song special,” he says, pointing to Davis’ landmark 1959 album “Kind of Blue.”

“That whole record, it’s full of all those notes that makes that record as special as it is,” Carter says. “Now, I found some. I’m looking for more every night.”

Equally praised around the world for his musicianship, ingenuity and innovation, Hancock tells Variety a comprehensive film exploration of Carter’s extraordinary life was well overdue. When they started playing together in Davis’ group, Carter stood out because of his instant ability to develop into a musician who was not afraid to try something new for fear it will throw off the other members in the band. That style of playing helped pushed both into musical territories unknown at the time.

“Ron Carter is like a blood brother to me,” Hancock says. “He is so giving and will do anything for you. He, like me, he simply loves people. He loves to perform for and interact with human beings.

“It’s a joy to be able to present that which you have created, because we are improvisors,” Hancock continues. “We can take something that is written on a page and modify it as we see fit in the moment. And that is, in itself, a process of creativity. …Moment to moment, things change, and we all react to things going on around us. That is part of the greatness of Ron Carter.”

Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny believes Carter has set a distinguished path in music that is worthy of global applause.

“There is no musician on the planet at the moment that is more important than Mr. Carter,” Metheny says, hailing his “incredible legacy and range,” and his humanity.

“It is hard to overstate that range,” Metheny says. “We are talking about a musician who has not only performed with thousands of musicians across the widest possible swath of modern music for almost seven decades now, but what he has brought to those endless encounters has, without fail, altered the musical results forcefully and without exception to the better. He makes every musical situation and every musician around him better.”

Although he makes no qualms about being first and foremost a jazz musician, Carter’s sound has been sought out by a who’s who of music. Aretha Franklin, A Tribe Called Quest, Paul Simon, Jefferson Airplane, Roberta Flack and Erykah Badu are among the many artists who sought him out for recordings.

“I am always amazed that I am on such a variety of music,” Carter says. “In New York there are always great bass players available for their projects. But somehow, they decide that this jazz bass player, Ron Carter, will be good for our record. Now, why do they decide that? I don’t care. My job, once I understand what they are trying to do, is can I help their dream come true. Can I help make their record into something that they couldn’t do if I wasn’t there.”

As much as the “Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes” delves into his professional life, the film also gives us never-before-seen glimpses of the family man, friend, educator and generous person that also defines his persona.

Jazz guitarist Russell Malone knows the various sides of Carter well, having toured with him on and off since 1995.

“He’s a no-nonsense guy,” Malone says affectionately of his relationship with Carter. “Don’t come to Ron with any bullshit or foolishness on or off the bandstand. Now, having said that, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a great sense humor. His sense of humor is fantastic.”

In describing his humanity and gentleness toward others, Malone recalls a performance with Carter’s band in Istanbul, along with a dazzling young pianist, the late Mulgrew Miller. Miller joined the tour after recuperating from a stroke.

“We were at the soundcheck and going over a tune we had played countless times,” Malone recalls, his voice cracking with emotion. “Mulgrew got to a fast passage in that tune that was written for the piano. Prior to the stroke, Mulgrew would rip it off like it was nothing, but after the stroke his facility had somewhat dwindled.”

Miller kept trying but eventually took his hands away from the keys and began to sob.

“He couldn’t play this passage anymore and he started bawling like a little baby. Ron Carter, he put his bass down and walked over to the piano where Mulgrew was sitting, and he embraced Mulgrew,” Malone says. “He cradled him in his arms like a parent would cradle a child. No words were said, that was just a powerful moment. That’s a side of Ron Carter many don’t get to see. Yes, he’s a stern man, but he has these nurturing qualities that I’ve been privileged to see.”

Always an ambassador for jazz, admirers of Carter’s music can still catch him on stages around the world. But the maestro admits they he may taper down his traveling and devote more of his attention to his online company, RonCarterJazz.com. The website offers online courses, instructional books on bass playing and classic performances, among other treats.

Carter sees his role as an educator as engaging a different cylinder in the engine that drives him on the path of greatness.

“I think I am a great teacher,” Carter says, beaming. “I have students who have really blossomed under my watchful eye and the big stick, you know. But I think teaching is an important way to help this music continue to grow too, despite other things. And if I can be part of the needle in a tree that helps jazz do something, like if I can help influence someone to play bass instead of baseball, I have done my job.”

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