A jazz legend comes to town: Prolific and influential bassist Ron Carter and his ensemble will headline the Northampton Jazz Festival

  • Bass legend Ron Carter, second from right, will lead his ensemble in a performance at the Academy of Music Oct. 1 as part of the Northampton Jazz Festival, which runs next Friday and Saturday with free shows around the city. PHOTO BY MARC GILGEN

  • Ron Carter, 85 this year, has played on over 2,200 records in his career — the most ever by a bassist. PHOTO BY MANOLO NEBOT ROCHERA/

  • New York singer Ashley Pezzotti and her ensemble come the Unitarian Society Oct. 1 at 3 p.m. as part of the Northampton jazz Festival. Photo by Jackie Arias JCA Photography/courtesy Northampton Jazz Festival

  • Eh La Bas, led by trumpeter and vocalist Bria Skonberg, bring their energetic sound to Pulaski Park Oct. 1 at 5 p.m. at the Northampton Jazz Festival. Image courtesy of the Northampton Jazz Festival

Staff Writer
Monday, October 03, 2022

The Northampton Jazz Festival has appeared in some different formats over the years and offered a wide slate of talented musicians, from industry veterans to up-and-coming players.

But the festival hasn’t yet been a forum for a musician who’s racked up over 2,200 recording credits, making him the most recorded bass player in history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

On Oct. 1, the celebrated Ron Carter, who turned 85 earlier this year, will bring his quartet to the Academy of Music for the crowning concert of the jazz festival, a two-day event that will feature performances by 15 jazz ensembles in multiple venues around downtown Northampton, including a number of eateries.

And except for the Ron Carter concert, which takes place at 7:30 p.m., it’s all free.

The festival begins Friday, Sept. 30 with what’s knows as the “Downtown Jazz Strut,” in which eight ensembles, between 4:30 and 10:30 p.m, will play sets varying between a half-hour and two hours in several downtown locations, including Pulaski Park, Progression Brewery Co. and Spoleto.

Saturday, Oct. 1, “Jazz Fest Day,” showcases six groups in Pulaski Park, The Parlor Room, and the Unitarian Society between 11:15 a.m. and 5 p.m., ranging from the vocal jazz harmonies of The Royal Bopsters to the guitar-based sounds of the Freddie Bryant Brazilian Trio (Bryant is an Amherst College grad from New York City).

Those performances will set the stage for the Academy show by the Ron Carter Quartet, which includes Carter, drummer Payton Crossley, saxophonist Jimmy Greene and pianist Renee Rosnes. The quartet is one of a number of ensembles that Carter, born in the Detroit area in 1937, continues to tour with regularly — and he gives no sign he’ll be slowing down any time soon.

Among the many highlights on his resume are being part of the fabled Miles Davis Quintet in the mid-to-late 1960s, a group that included Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. A composer as well, he’s released many of his own albums and gigged with countless musicians, and not just in jazz: Along with players such as Dexter Gordon and Wes Montgomery, he’s played with B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel.

Carter, who grew up playing the cello and has performed on that instrument as well, has received much credit for his influential bass playing. One reviewer calls him “a brilliant rhythmic and melodic player who uses everything in his bass and cello arsenal: walking lines; thick, full, prominent notes and tones; drones and strumming effects; and melody snippets.”

Avery Sharpe, the veteran Valley bassist and composer who has gigged with many notable players himself, including McCoy Turner, says Carter “wrote the book” when it comes to the walking bass in jazz: “He influenced every bass player who came after him, including me.”

Sharpe says he first came became aware of Carter’s playing when he was studying bass at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the early 1970s, a time when Carter was doing a lot of recording for CTI Records, a jazz label whose roster included George Benson, Freddie Hubbard and many other major names.

“Ron got such an incredible sound, such volume, on his bass,” said Sharpe, who has met Carter a number of times over the years. “That’s what I wanted to learn.”

George Kaye, bassist for the Valley jazz ensemble Green Street Trio, took some bass lessons with Carter via Zoom during the pandemic. It was a great experience, he says, though also a little intimidating, at least at first: “When you’re in the presence of genius, you can be kind of unnerved.”

Kaye says he’d long been impressed with Carter’s playing from hearing him on records and live, and seeing and hearing him playing through his own computer monitor reinforced that.

“His playing is so melodic, and so intuitive, it’s just innate — it’s like he’s always thinking two choruses ahead and knows where [the music] is going. He absolutely leads the band. And his tone and articulation are just exceptional.”

A multiple Grammy Award winner, author, and former music teacher at City College of New York, Carter staged a well-publicized special concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall this past May to mark his 85th birthday, at which he performed with and led three different ensembles.

Asked at that time by Forbes magazine what keeps him motivated to play music after a career spanning more than six decades, he said, “I always thought of going to a gig as a free class: ‘What can these musicians offer me that I don’t already know?’ And every gig that I’m there, I’m never surprised at what I pick up.”

And in an email he sent to the Gazette, Carter said his continual musical journey is also about “the quest for finding more right notes!”

Meantime, Ruth Griggs, president of the Northampton Jazz Festival, said Carter has never played in Northampton, though he’s gigged in Amherst and the Boston area. “So that is a bit of a coup to get him,” she noted in an email.

It was George Kaye’s suggestion, Griggs added, that the jazz fest try to book Carter.

Ticket sales have been good for his show, she said, which would seem to indicate “that the folks in this area, and New England are really excited about having him come to [Northampton] … they know and appreciate what bringing Ron Carter to the stage here really means.”

Here’s a quick look at other ensembles playing at the Northampton Jazz Festival:

The next-generation musicians: The Jazz Combo from the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley, and the Sci-Tech Band from Springfield, will play Sept. 30 at Pulaski Park at 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., respectively. And the UMass Jazz Ensemble will play at Pulaski Park at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 1

Ashley Pezzotti and Trio — Young New York singer Ashley Pezzotti has performed or toured with jazz giants such as Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, while gigging at venues including Birdland Jazz Club and Blue Note Jazz Club. She and her trio — Miki Yamanaka (piano), Jason Clotter (bass), TJ Reddick (drums) — perform at the Unitarian Society on Oct. 1 at 3 p.m.

Eh La Bas, which includes internationally acclaimed trumpeter and vocalist Bria Skonberg, clarinetist Evan Arntzen, banjoist Arnt Arntzen, bassist Jen Hodge and drummer Andrew Millar, will play Oct. 1 at 5 p.m. in Pulaski Park.

Also, jazz archivist Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera will spin old jazz 78 rpm records at Pulaski Park at 2:30 p.m. on Oct.1. 

More information is available at northamptonjazzfest.org. Tickets for the Ron Carter Quartet can be purchased there and at aomtheatre.com.