listening to a performance of Bachs Third Brandenburg Concerto, one thats a
little quiet at the start, perhaps, but gains fire as it goes along -- and has an extra,
Early on, I
hear a bassist playing pizzicato against the bowed strings of Bachs orchestra. Soon
hes sliding off the notes, as if he thought that this was jazz. Then his ad-libs
grow into a full improvisation, a cheerful dance under and around the notes Bach wrote,
played with engaging respect and with a way of sneaking out in front of Bachs
rhythm, only to tease it by throwing in an unexpected little twist.
technically this is jazz, since the bassist is Ron Carter, who got famous in the
1960s for his sessions with Miles Davis. Now hes an acknowledged master and
also Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York, where he runs the jazz
department at City College. What Ive been hearing is his latest release on the Blue
Note label, titled Brandenburg Concerto, and offering Grieg, Handel, Bartok and
Ravel as well as Bach, in arrangements that either turn the music into jazz, or add jazz
This isnt Mr. Carters first blending of jazz and the
classics. In 1993, his album Friends included works by, among others,
Rachmaninoff and Chopin. In 1994 he recorded Ron Carter Meets Bach, a deeply
serious tribute in which he multiplied his solo bass with multitracked clones, allowing
him to form an ensemble of basses all by himself.
might wonder, is going on here? Is it legal to take classical works, and add notes the
composers didnt write? One answer, from inside the classical tradition, says
"Why not?" The second movement of the Third Brandenburg contains just two long
chords, and any musicologist will tell you Bach expected someone to add a made-up solo.
(Mr. Carter, of course, seizes the opportunity.) Mozart wrote his own elaboration of
Handels Messiah, and, more recently, composers havent
hesitated to transform older music, as Luciano Berio did in his 1960s work Sinfonia
where he wove a movement from Mahlers Second Symphony into a tapestry all his
doesnt Mr. Carter take a further leap, by mixing classical music with sounds that
arent from the classical tradition? Of course he does, and for anyone who hates
that, Id have three answers. The first is the militant one. Enough of these
barriers! Tear down the walls! The second takes a laissez-faire approach. If you
dont like Mr. Carters Bach and Grieg, then just dont listen to it. The
third answer, though, might be the most encouraging. Theres a lot of music in this
world of ours, and many of us dont build fences in our listening. We go out to buy
CDs, and come back with Bach, Elvis Costello, and John Coltrane. Why shouldnt Mr.
Carter do something similar when he plays?
Thats certainly what he himself thinks. "Its not
necessary," he says, to build walls between jazz and classical music, "and
its never been necessary. Its just been the view of the keepers of the
classical world." Besides, as he told me, he began as a classical musician,
graduating from the prestigious Eastman School of Music in 1959, playing with the
Rochester Philharmonic, and getting his masters degree at the Manhattan School.
"I had intended to follow a classical career," he quietly explains, "but
the classical music world was not able to accept an African-American." Even when his
jazz playing exploded, he still wanted to play classical music.
shouldnt he play it now? In any case, he knows the classical world is changing,
bringing in Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea, for example, to add jazz improvisations to
otherwise orthodox performances of Mozart piano concertos. Or, as he puts it (exaggerating
only a little) the people who run classical music are changing so fast that theyre
"leaving skid marks behind their ideas. If they play their cards right" --
meaning, of course, if they book Bobby McFerrin or Mr. Carter -- "theyll get
more people in their subscription series."
And Mr. Carter
deserves to be booked. All his classical adventures work. Its odd, at first, to hear
him segue from a salon work by the violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler into jazz, or from jazz
into Ravels Pavane pour une Infante Defunte. The classical originals,
nicely played, retain their different styles; the jazz, by contrast, might register as
nothing more than jazz, oddly generic next to Kreisler or Ravel. But its all a
delight to hear, and I enjoyed Mr. Carters playfulness, most overtly present when he
breaks into "Im Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" from South
Pacific, or the "Habanera" from Bizets Carnen. He performs
his own works, too, and they hold their own, especially Vientos del Desierto on
the Brandenburg Concerto disc, written for his bass with the rich, dark
accompaniment of four cellos.
recording is darker still, surely -- since its only scored for basses -- the deepest
low-pitched Bach well ever hear. The effect is distinctive, maybe even unique,
strikingly nocturnal and intimate. Whats sad, though, is that Mr. Carter slips out
or is he simply playing in the language of jazz, where "blue" notes
are allowed, and harmony is more ambiguous? Whatever the reason, people with ears attuned
to classical music might balk, though I got used to the sound, especially when I played
the disc at night.
Brandenburg Concerto! By now Ive played it at least a dozen times, and it still
sounds fresh. Bach is an exuberant yet organized composer, always precise about the way
his music moves. Mr. Carter stays with Bachs conception, never getting off the road,
though always putting up signposts of his own along the way. He wants to tour the concerto
with his own string ensemble, and he should. But established orchestras should invite him,
too, to amplify his bass (or else you wouldnt hear it) and go on stage to reinvent
the music in ways even the recording might not lead us to expect.
Wall Street Journal, March 11, 1997