mercredi 6 novembre 2019

Kent Carter (english version)

Translation: Serge Rémy Sacré

Kent and me 1996 (photo Jacques Dufour)

Haus der Kunst, Munich

To celebrate my 60th birthday, in January 2013, my wife Laurence took me to Munich for “ECM: A Cultural Archeology”, a multimedia exhibition recounting the early years of  the famous german jazz label and opening its archives to the public.

A trip at this period of the year had become something of a ritual for us.  We'd often settle for an art exhibition in Paris.  This time, probably due to the solemn nature of  the round number, she went all out. 

It wasn't as if Laurence didn't know ECM.  She and I met in January 1997 for the interview I always have with my new pupils.

In the course of her first guitar lessons, she told me her favorite pianist was Keith Jarrett.  A revelation which suddenly boosted her lessons' level of interest.  Gone was my professional reserve,  her scores grew in complexity, grew too complex, the margins annotated as they often were with required-listening discographic references!  A relationship was born, and we naturally ended up merging our record collections...

Many years later, when Laurence showed me the stack of scores I had written out for her lessons, all well organized in her personal archives, I noticed that all the recording references I had scribbled in the margins at lesson's end were, you guessed it, ECM records.  

My 60th birthday present hadn't come out of the blue.


The Munich exhibition certainly delivered.  John Kelman gave a thorough report of the setup in his excellent article for All About Jazz:  All About Jazz/John Kelman.   The high point  was of course the wall of magnetic tape boxes of all brands and sizes organized by date, I suppose, within which visitors could search for their mythical albums, with handwritten titles on the edge or complete credits when displayed full-on.  My browsing of this massive collection yielded the original Dis* and Belonging** tapes:  shivers...

I was in for another shot of adrenalin.  As we walked through the exhibit we suddenly entered a room shrouded in darkness in which a large screen was positioned diagonally, allowing us to see it from both sides – the same movie playing on each, with no projection rays to be seen.  A magic trick soon overpowered by what I saw on screen:  Kent Carter, "my" Kent, filmed with three African-American musicians playing “Great Black  Music” ! I immediately recognized George Lewis on trombone, but was not familiar with the saxophonist and drummer.  The screen, standing at a good 2 x 3 meters, enveloped us with their music and physical presence.  I was alternately stunned by the device itself and the subject it projected.  All of a sudden I remembered what Kent had once told me:  "Manfred Eicher doesn't like me". 

An explanation is in order.

We have to go back to 1994 in order to understand the personal meaning of the great double bassist's assertion.  

Photo Wielfried Petzi
Stan Douglas' Hors-champs (1982), a black and white performance of trombonist George Lewis, saxophonist Douglas Ewart, bassist Kent Carter and drummer Oliver Johnson, performing saxophonist Albert Ayler's "Spirits Rejoice," with strains of the American and French national anthems, projected onto two sides of a screen hanging diagonally in the middle of an otherwise empty room of neutral whites and grays.

Excerpt from John Kelman's AAJ review of the exhibition ECM: A Cultural Archeology in Haus der Kunst München, Germany, November 23, 2012-February 10, 2013

*Jan Garbarek – Dis  ECM 1093 (1977)
**Keith Jarrett – Belonging  ECM 1050 (1974)

The end of Contrejour

The recording and release of  Hauts Plateaux in 1993 was an essential milestone in my musical career. It also allowed me to land two important gigs, one at the Théâtre Fémina in Bordeaux in march 1994, opening for the Miroslav Vitous Group with Jan Garbarek and Airto Moreira, the other two days later in Limoge's Centre Culturel Jean Gagnant, opening for trombonist Yves Robert's ensemble.  Let it be known, however, that playing as an opening act is no springboard to greater things, and these two shows, accordingly, led to nought.

The Hauts Plateaux sessions had been rife with dissension in our quartet between Mikko (drums) and Jean-François (cb), and they had decided to reignite their feud for our concert in Limoges.
I could no longer stand the bickering, and had no clue as to how to avoid it; backstage, I decided to tell Christian (Paboeuf), my oboist and vibraphonist friend, fourth member of Contrejour that I was over with the band.  I was horrified by what I had just said, yet felt relief and a sense of freedom.

In parallel with Contrejour, I had started playing as an informal trio with Daniel (Renault), the drummer from Noëtra, and Jacques Dufour, bassist from the local scene in Périgueux, with the intention of playing the nascent "jazz bar" circuit. We played a repertoire comprised mostly of standards, a couple of my more "jazzifiable" pieces, and a few of Jacques' compositions. This formula allowed me to easily put to the test the improvisational theory I had accumulated after the Noëtra fiasco.  Bar after bar, the hands-on experience pushed the process forward.

We got hired for what would become Périgueux' first Jazz Festival.  Sharing the bill were a band whose name I forgot, us (Jean Lapouge Trio) and the headliner:  the B.M. Quartet, a circumstancial ensemble comprised of a local Dutch pianist with Jean-Marc Périssat on drums and Kent Carter on double bass. 

After our set I settled down to my first encounter with Kent Carter's world.  With his severe and sullen air he splashed through the pianist's feeble "middle swing" compositions.  I had never heard such a sound come out of a double bass, and his flow was that of a raging mountain stream. 

I remembered that Pierre Aubert, our violinist in Noëtra, had played some gigs with Kent Carter a few years earlier, as they both lived near Angoulême.  Pierre had even told me in passing - I hardly acknowledged the information -  that Kent had recorded for ECM.

A few short moments after the last note of the festival had been played, a strange scene played out in front of me, which I did not immediately understand.  Jean-Marc Périssat manoeuvred to lead Kent away from the dutch pianist and pack him and his double bass into their Renault 4L  for the ride back to Angoulême.  I later learned that the night's fees promised by the dutchman had been significantly downsized...

In the aftermath of Contrejour, I yearned for simplicity.  Managing a band is not always an easy task.  Gig hunting was getting more and more complicated. Every concert was fiercely bargained and often led to disappointment and regret.  A break was in order. 

It lasted two months.

The memory of Kent Carter's emotionally charged playing surfaced from deep within.

The meeting

A band doesn't get much simpler than a duet.

To say that I felt up to the challenge of playing with a musician of Kent Carter's stature would be stretching the truth. Let's just say I wasn't completely frightened. My guitar parts had grown and gained in clarity, they worked on their own and were evidence to my progress.  Also, I had been listening compulsively to a record * by Ralph Towner and Gary Peacock that had just come out - a model for my project, fueling me with the energy to go forward with it.

So I gathered my two Cds and all the press clippings I could find (which amounted to not much) into the most attractive sales pitch bundle possible, as if I were adressing a record company, and sent it off.  I let two weeks pass.  Holding my horses no longer - I can be impatient at times – I mustered up the nerve to call him.  I had mentally prepared to interact in english.  A good thing I had.  He had received my parcel and was willing to meet me at his place in Juillaguet, Charente, the following Thursday.  This was Ascension Day in France, as memory serves.

*Gary Peacock / Ralph Towner – Oracle  ECM 1490 (1994)

I knew absolutely nothing about Kent Carter. My research had gone no further than finding his phone number and address on the minitel, which was all one could do with that contraption.  I just wanted to play with him.

His lair lay at  the dead end of a long asphalted country lane which led into a courtyard serving a group of buildings. Beyond  an open gate, a large assembly was finishing a meal under a chestnut tree.  It was 2 P.M., warm and sunny.  Kent Carter got up and mumbled a few words, pointing me to his studio. In an atmosphere of general indifference, I slung my guitar over my shoulder and took an amp in each hand, passed through a well equipped control booth, stepped into a small room containing a piano and the bass, set up my gear and waited. He arrived a good half hour later.  I had propped a few scores on his music stand. He skimmed through the first one.  
 - Can we try this?  I ventured.
 - Ok
And we were off for a “normal” rehearsal, such as I had grown accustomed to conducting for so many years now, Kent Carter letting me take the lead .  Several years later, he confided that he had accepted to meet me thinking I had wanted to hire his studio.

I can't remember the rest of that first day, or perhaps it has blended with the many similar days' ends. Kent had taken a liking to our get-togethers and we saw each other almost every Friday.  I can't really say how our complicity came into being. Perhaps recounting a typical Friday might help. 

I'd arrive around 10 in the morning, and come in the back way, it was always open. I knew the place by heart, first an airlock, a sort of scullery with a small fridge I think, with an ashtray on top as the  space served as Kent's smoking room during our often long breaks:  we would chat, the two of us, with the outside door open.  The airlock opened into the control room where stood a great and beautiful mixing desk and its peripheral gear. In front of the desk, beyond a glass pane, was studio A, a large renovated barn of 90 m2, with a very high ceiling and a magnificent oak flooring; on the left was studio B with its upright piano and bass, where we rehearsed. Whenever Kent felt it was time he'd say :
 - Coffee?
 - Yes! And he'd go fetch two americanos. Around 2 P.M. : 
 - Hungry?
 -Yeah, and we'd go to the kitchen in the living quarters adjoining the studio, making our way around the building outside, there he'd cook, improvising with whatever was available.  The day would often end with a can of beer, on the smoking room fridge.  So easy-going.  I loved being with him.

Every so often I'd be invited to dinner. I met his wife Michala Marcus, a modern dancer from Denmark who spoke french perfectly, which came in quite handy at times, as Kent didn't speak a word of our language. As I would often come to hear, he even anglicized proper nouns. These evenings were a favourable time for confidence and anecdotes of all sorts.  I particularly enjoyed spurring him into talking about his american period, “October Revolution” and his important collaboration with Steve Lacy…

But most of the time we would work.

We'd always start with one of his pieces, playing his music had come naturally.  I would discover his compositions fresh from the printer and would sight-read them as best I could; at times he would leave me alone a while so I could better concentrate.  At first I wanted to throw a few standards into our repertoire in order to better seduce the local gig audience, and further my improvisational workout. We played a few.  Some quite beautiful, I might add.  And then our relationship grew serious.

Kent plays “free”, as we say in France, he improvises freely, off a blank slate. He was solidly schooled in music, his father was a respected conductor.  I learned to play “free” with him.  You know how hard it was for me to learn to improvise at all.  My brother François even told me a very long time ago:  Jean you're not made for that, you're a composer!  I've never stopped trying to prove him wrong.

A piece by Kent always starts with “the head”*, that is:  everything that's on the score;  then we get to “the playing”**, aka the black hole, the total vacuum, whatever happens, play! At first I received a few pointers which soon morphed into recriminations, or even exasperation: Jean: don’t follow me, don’t wait for me, create something, an event, something that will surprise me…
I remember being the exasperated party one day, I decided to eschew any and all difficulties by just playing randomly;  on the spot, Kent's face went flush with colour, he threw his bass in its corner and walked out in anger… to come back half an hour later, calmed, but with an air of “don't ever pull that on me again”.

*exposing the theme. **free improvisation after the initial exposition, generally ending with a reprise of the theme.

And then I started to enjoy the vacuum, the search for what could fuel a musical dialogue outside the realm of tonality and the constraints inherent to chord changes. We continued on our path of musical seriousness.  There were down days, of course, Kent would drag his feet, we would whittle away the day with breaks, the day would turn into one big break, Kent was down. There weren't so many of those days.

We played for an audience early on, Kent having a small network of local bars, restaurants and private parties in english homes around Angoulême, all eager to see him play.  That's where we forged our repertoire.

And then I got a lucky strike.


I wanted to play my part in finding gigs.  I managed to come up with bits and pieces around Périgueux, but nothing substantial.  I mustered up some courage and decided to reactivate my contacts – dormant since the end of Contrejour.  The list was rather bare.

A foreign telephone number attracted my attention:  it was that of the french cultural center in Izmir, Turkey. The turish project which had gone south with Contrejour comprised three gigs : Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, but had been overseen by the city of Ankara. Calling Izmir was going into uncharted territory. I tried my luck. A charming person answered my call : the director himself, a rare occurrence.  He remembered the Ankara project quite clearly, his contract at the culural center was coming to an end, and his budget had a positive balance:  why not spend it on me?  The fact that I was currently playing with a US national was not ideal, but he was keen on completing an unfinished project...

A fortnight later I received two airline tickets for Izmir, with a stop at Istanbul. We had a great contract, with a comfortable budget.  Kent was both pleased and worried.  Truth be told, he hadn’t taken the gig seriously before seeing the plane tickets,  but something else was eating at him. He admitted he had never flown with his double bass. He had toured exclusively by road ever since he was in Europe.  He was relieved when he found he could rent a flight case in Paris to protect his bass from the rigours of the bagage hold.  I took on the responsibility of clearing our gear with customs by getting the necessary ATA booklets stamped by the french administration.  It was all new to us.

We had booked a hotel in Orly on the eve of our flight – 11 o’clock the next morning. We had a reservation for a two bed room.  No problem there, except Kent watched american television late into the night, probably because he had no TV at home…
Boarding went smoothly, the double bass’ great white flight case arrived on time and we watched our gear head out to the hold.  I had just forgotten to have my booklet stamped…

I was about to fly for the very first time, Kent was very nervous, he needed a beer.  Once airborne he relaxed.

Through the great bay windows of the international zone at Istanbul airport we watched our gear being taxied out to the small plane that would take us to Izmir. Everything seemed to be OK.

We were met by the director of the cultural center himself as we disembarked, but Kent was summoned to the customs office for an ID check.  He came out after the director had paid a  bakchich, a seemingly usual local practice,  relations with the american embassy being what they were at the time.

Curiously, the director paid no attention to Kent during supper, which he had invited us to, and refused to speak english. Our hotel was luxury class, the rooms were huge. Kent and I had agreed to meet up at the bar. For this first evening as a musician abroad, he treated me to quite an improvised sketch. He ordered a double whisky and started miming, in pseudo sign language, his enforced silence over dinner;  he carried on, miming the state in which he would find his double bass the next morning, turned to dust or rubber… I was laughing to tears on my stool! 

He reunited with his contrabass in perfect shape the next morning at soundcheck. That evening the venue was packed, my piece Tunisiens, recently added to the setlist and which Kent liked very much, was, against all logic, very well received and applauded.

On our arrival in France we had to go through french customs and get our ATA booklets’ return stub stamped to get our gear back.  A simple formality.  Our blood went cold as the customs agent told us she could not stamp the return stub, since the gear had not left the country! The departure stub was blank.  As I translated the problem to Kent, who had already caught on to what was happening, he started acting up dangerously.  The customs agent managed to sign off a  release voucher for our gear, with summons to address our local customs authorities if we wanted to avoid a fine, before he broke into a rage,  belching out an impressive number of “fucks” – all pertaining to french administration.   I managed to get him out of the office and meet up with the guy who was to pick up the flight case and bring it back to Paris.

Such are the adventures that forge a band.

Another way to forge a band – or split it up – is to lock it up in a recording studio.

To be continued...