Live review | Ron Carter and the Golden Striker Trio offer a lesson in forceful fluidity

Ron Carter played at Bohemian Caverns with pianist Mulgrew Miller and guitarist Russell Malone. Photos and collage by Jati Lindsay/CapitalBop

by David Reed
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Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio
Bohemian Caverns
Sat., May 21, 2011

Let’s not give Ron Carter any extra points for having largely created the role of the bass in modern jazz, and no points for playing with almost every great from Miles Davis on. And let’s not grade on a curve for his being 74 years old. Let’s just say some guy brought his trio to Bohemian Caverns this past weekend. How were they?

They brought us jazz from a more advanced planet.

That much was clear from the first song, “Cedar Tree,” composed by the trio’s guitarist, Russell Malone. The instrumentation of bass, guitar and Mulgrew Miller’s piano led to a remarkable fluidity in their roles. In most passages, there was no distinguishing which instrument was lead, which harmony and which rhythm. What they gave us instead was a fugue of three voices exploring different but complementary paths through the composition. On the trio’s 2003 CD, The Golden Striker, this song is fine jazz chamber music, but doesn’t come close to the polyphony of the live version. Maybe it was lost in the recording process, or maybe I need better speakers.

On “Laverne Walk,” written by the bassist Oscar Pettiford, and on his own “Candlelight,” Carter showed how he transformed double bass into a lead instrument. Sometimes he played guitar riffs on the huge thing, and sometimes he picked it like a banjo.

“Candlelight” also contained Malone’s greatest solo of the night. He slid from jazz to classical guitar without a wink or an excuse. The audience was transfixed, and he made that guitar sound like it had more strings than a harp.

The highlight of the early set on Saturday night was the jazz standard “My Funny Valentine.” It started with Miller sketching the melody while Carter played a warm, irregular heartbeat. This trio’s form of improvisation is not the usual, with one player riffing while the others support him. It’s more like they arrange (or re-arrange) the composition on the fly, somehow staying together like a flock of birds turning.  On “Valentine,” Carter and Malone did fall silent while Miller played an intricate and soulful solo. After all these improvisational departures, they ended as they began, with the bare-bones melody and the heartbeat.

The set ended with Fletcher Henderson’s “Soft Winds,” which Carter said they’re preparing for an upcoming recording. Frankly, after the depth of the set so far, this upbeat, almost Dixieland rendition struck me as cloying. But the transitions in tempo – big changes that weren’t jarring or unnatural – were impressive.

Aside from the music, this trio hearkens back to the swing era, when bands cut a fine figure. On these three, the matching neckties are sharp rather than an affectation. They made sure that one of them (Malone, in this case) was stationed to shake hands with fans leaving after the set. And when Carter accidentally wound up holding the door for a long stream of fans coming upstairs from the Caverns, he was the picture of good-natured.

Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio will be on world tour through June. Jazz fans are well advised to catch them at every opportunity.

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