Upright Tone Lessons From Ron Carter

Yesterday, I had the honor of working with jazz legend Ron Carter, helping him use the Personalized Amplification System(R) and in doing so, received more of my continuing education about instrument tone.

Yesterday was the first of 3 shows at the Lincoln Center/Rose Theater in Manhattan, called "Detroit Motor City Jazz" starring Ron himself and a full lineup of supreme jazz royalty headliners, all from Detroit. The list includes Geri Allen, Marcus Belgrave, Chris Fuller, Charles McPherson, Roger Squitero and Yusef Lateef. (!) They all knew each other so well and it was very sweet to see the affection and respect they all had for each other. The event was in two parts. First was Ron playing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra featuring Wynton Marsalis, who also served as Master of Ceremonies. Wynton is great at this, being both entertaining and giving a unique historical perspective for the entire event. The second part was a smaller ensemble featuring all the Detroit stars.

More about the music (ah, the music...) later. This first part is mostly for the bass players.

The band setup was arranged in two curved strata of musicians. The back line, looking from the audience, was, left to right, a 9' Steinway and, all on risers, respectively, percussion, drums and a line of horn players on about a two foot tall riser. The front line was more horn players. Between the two strata was Ron Carter, who served as the music director for the entire event from this central location, setting up in front of the drum riser (about a foot off the ground). The double-bass system was set up on the edge of the rear horn section riser, which was Ron's preference ("audience right" of the drums). We (Jesse Flack and I) showed up at 2:00 to get things unpacked and set up and Ron showed up at 3:00 so we could dial things in, in preparation for a 4:00 sound check. Ron's bass, a beautiful instrument with these amazing shiny black strings, is fitted with a David Gage Realist pickup and the Power Stand we brought was loaded with the new David Gage presets. We picked #92, the "authentic" one, and I layed the remote on Ron's music stand, wire clipped tight with the music stand light's clip. I brought a 30' cord and was glad I did. We needed every bit of it. Ron has played through our system several times at David's shop (see Jesse's account of the amps seminar), and was comfortable enough with it to invite me to bring one out for his use on these (very high-profile) shows. So, it wasn't anything like a total unknown, but it was his first use of the system in a live show. I wanted to make sure it was all 100% perfect for him, so I brought a 1/3 octave EQ (the one I did all the preset work with) ready to patch in and an extra double-bass/Packlite(TM) system as an insurance policy. It turned out I didn't need any of this.

Ron plugged in, brought the master up, said "too dark" and started turning the EQ knobs on the remote. I won't go into all the details surrounding this, but before too long, after a succession of playing and tweaking he told me "this will work". Players arrived and sound check was to start soon. He looked comfortable. I walked around the stage and was happy to hear the bass everywhere onstage, including seated at the piano. At the edge of the stage was a beaming David Gage, who had walked the room during Ron's dial-in and was totally flipped about how the bass was everywhere and everywhere clear. As the sound check progressed, I was struck by the position of the bass in the ensemble mix. The sound people at the console told me they had the bass totally out of the house mix and I thought its level in the ensemble mix was perfect. Part of this has to do with the tone that Ron has crafted.

Ron turned the knobs and boosted both midrange and treble while reducing the bass a bit. The resulting tone was very midrangey to my ears. But when he played in the ensemble, big band or small, the bass tone was totally focused and every note he played was crystal clear, including out in the audience. I mean, it was his sound. It was Ron Carter. We all know it because it's a permanent part of our American musical culture, and there it was, in the air. (Look him up on Google, but tape your chin up first so it doesn't land in your lap). I asked if he would like to give the equalizer a shot, maybe boost frequencies he didn't have on the tone controls. This was a defining moment for me. He held up his right hand, fingers extended and told me "here's my equalizer". And this is so right. He could probably make that same tone with any bass. Not exactly, of course, but you would know it was him, no question. The tone is in the fingers. Amen.

One negative: Ron wasn't happy with the system's distance away from his play location, about 10'. He said he would prefer it "more immeditate" the problem for him was the time delay (tho very small) he didn't like, and of course a player like this has microfine senses about this. He spoke about this having a possible impact on the time, and I know it's true. Nevertheless, we were stuck with this physical arrangement and he was basically ok with it.

The house was recording the 3 events. They wanted to take a direct off the pickup (via our xlr out) and Ron told them not to. Rather, he said, put a mic in front of the system, because that's the sound he hears (and has crafted) and because direct is "too dry". Micing the system allows the sound to develop. This was such an experienced and wise direction for recording and they did it, no questions asked.

The music was a delightful and mesmerising treat, every piece. Everyone on the stage was a certified monster and everyone played at the highest level, to the delight of the audience. Ron did a second-half solo performance of "Willow Tree" which totally lit up the room. It was that moment, that event, that made me so proud of all of our work together. You don't play that beautifully unless you love the sound of your instrument, and I knew that was what he was hearing. Well, it was through our sound system, but it was his instrument nonetheless; an electric upright bass that delivered exactly what he intended to a thrilled audience. I was so honored to be able to serve in making this happen.

Jesse Flack joined me, helped with the whole thing and helped with the (real late) drive back to Boston that night. Yay! We didn't fall asleep and die on the road. Anyway, maybe Jesse can add some comments to this as an upright player using our system. (he has a Realist and David Gage presets too).
Original Post
Such a night. I'm still buzzing from it. Hearing that music performed with so much passion and soul, and with such astonishing skill, well, it just does something really good and lasting for you. For me anyway. And what an honor to be able to contribute, even in some small way, to making it happen.

Ron Carter's got such a distinctive sound, very bright and detailed, and watching him get dialed in on the remote was like a little tone master class, as Cliff describes. He was very patient and methodical about it (play, listen, tweak, repeat) and in the end he was getting beautiful, unmistakably authentic Ron-sounding tone. And as Ron oh-so-rightly points out, that tone is right there in his fingers -- it's certainly not coming from any amp. But now that tone -- HIS tone -- was everywhere in the room.

I walked around the hall with David Gage while Ron was playing, and we were both amazed at how clear and articulate the sound was, all the way at the back of the room, even up in the first balcony. Up in the second balcony, you started to feel like the highs were getting a little attenuated, as you would expect, but it was still remarkably well-defined. And this was all coming from the stage -- before the house sound guy even got going. I know from experience how an amplified bass sound can just turn to mud in a big hall like that, especially in the back or up in the balcony. This was another world of bass tone.

Cliff already mentioned Ron's amazing solo rendition of Willow Weep for Me. That was a hight point for me too, and one that will stay with me for quite a while. He started with very simple, spare statements of the melody, and then proceeded to completely deconstruct and reassemble both the song and the instrument in increasingly elaborate ways. Double-stops, chords, trills, slides, reharmonizations, hammer-downs, you name it. At points he was plucking the "wrong" side of the string, above his left hand, or scraping his thumbnail along the string. And even up in the balcony where we were sitting, we were getting every little nuance.

An amazing night all around. Yusef's Morning Trilogy was a masterpiece, with some beautiful, moody exchanges between him and Ron. Hearing Curtis Fuller and Wyciffe Gordon together was like having a condensed history of jazz trombone right there in front of you. And Geri Allen was amazing as always, and then when she left the stage, this young kid who looked all of fourteen came on with the lcjo and just tore it up. I picked up a copy of Yusef's new autobiography on the way out -- can't wait to dig into that.



-Jesse
Cliff and Jesse,

Thanks for the awesome report; the fact that sound gurus like yourselves are so inspired by a performance that you take the time to pen such powerful impressions really validates Ron Carter as master performer. A living legend.

Jesse, I've done a little listening, and man, you are a true animal on Bass yourself
(Check out http://www.bigego.com/#green )

Thanks Fellas

Jeff
http://www.theunmentionables.com

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