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I'm listening to a performance of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, one that’s a little quiet at the start, perhaps, but gains fire as it goes along -- and has an extra, loving touch.
Early on, I hear a bassist playing pizzicato against the bowed strings of Bach’s orchestra. Soon he’s 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 Bach’s rhythm, only to tease it by throwing in an unexpected little twist.
But then technically this is jazz, since the bassist is Ron Carter, who got famous in the 1960’s for his sessions with Miles Davis. Now he’s an acknowledged master and also Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York, where he runs the jazz department at City College. What I’ve 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 commentary.


This isn’t Mr. Carter’s 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.
What, purists might wonder, is going on here? Is it legal to take classical works, and add notes the composers didn’t 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 Handel’s Messiah, and, more recently, composers haven’t hesitated to transform older music, as Luciano Berio did in his 1960’s work Sinfonia where he wove a movement from Mahler’s Second Symphony into a tapestry all his own.
But doesn’t Mr. Carter take a further leap, by mixing classical music with sounds that aren’t from the classical tradition? Of course he does, and for anyone who hates that, I’d 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 don’t like Mr. Carter’s Bach and Grieg, then just don’t listen to it. The third answer, though, might be the most encouraging. There’s a lot of music in this world of ours, and many of us don’t build fences in our listening. We go out to buy CDs, and come back with Bach, Elvis Costello, and John Coltrane. Why shouldn’t Mr. Carter do something similar when he plays?


That’s certainly what he himself thinks. "It’s not necessary," he says, to build walls between jazz and classical music, "and it’s never been necessary. It’s 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 master’s 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.
So why shouldn’t 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 they’re "leaving skid marks behind their ideas. If they play their cards right" -- meaning, of course, if they book Bobby McFerrin or Mr. Carter -- "they’ll get more people in their subscription series."
And Mr. Carter deserves to be booked. All his classical adventures work. It’s odd, at first, to hear him segue from a salon work by the violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler into jazz, or from jazz into Ravel’s 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 it’s all a delight to hear, and I enjoyed Mr. Carter’s playfulness, most overtly present when he breaks into "I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" from South Pacific, or the "Habanera" from Bizet’s 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.
His all-Bach recording is darker still, surely -- since it’s only scored for basses -- the deepest low-pitched Bach we’ll ever hear. The effect is distinctive, maybe even unique, strikingly nocturnal and intimate. What’s sad, though, is that Mr. Carter slips out of tune…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.
But that Brandenburg Concerto! By now I’ve 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 Bach’s 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 wouldn’t 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