Happy 80th to Ron Carter: Bass Hero, NEA Jazz Master — and the Force Behind 'Empire Jazz'

May 4, 2017

Ron Carter, one of the greatest bassists in jazz history, turns 80 today. WBGO is celebrating by playing his music on the air throughout the day, and there's certainly no shortage to choose from. But given that today also happens to be International Star Wars Day, it seems only appropriate to shout out a curio in his discography: Empire Jazz, released in 1980 on the RSO label.

How much of an anomaly was this album in Carter's career? Put it this way: I had never heard of it until this morning, when I posted another jazz story for Star Wars Day, and had a friendly exchange on Twitter with Zachary, a sci-fi connoisseur who runs a blog called Doomsdayer. He wondered why I didn't plug Empire Jazz, being that today was Carter's birthday. I had no idea what he was talking about, but then he posted this.

Yes, that is "The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme)," by John Williams. Yes, it has been arranged by Carter for a chamber-jazz ensemble. And hell, yes: his personnel includes flutist Hubert Laws, drummer Billy Cobham, trumpeter Jon Faddis and pianist Bob James. The saxophonist is Frank Wess (!!!) and the trombonist is Eddie Bert. Among the other tracks on the album are "Han Solo And The Princess (Love Theme)" and "Yoda's Theme."

When I owned up to my ignorance about this album, a handful of people chimed in to say they had loved it back in the day. So there go my tenuous credentials as a jazz-literate Star Wars fan. (Was this album buried somehow? Am I the only person who can't stop laughing at the cover illustration? Could someone please investigate the possibility of a deluxe reissue?)

Carter, of course, deserves every accolade you can throw at him: at the end of last year, I made him the sterling example in a story about jazz's mighty reigning elders. He's in residence through Sunday at the Blue Note Jazz Club, leading a band with tenor saxophonist Houston Person, pianist Kenny Barron, guitarist Russell Malone and drummer Payton Crossley. You should go.

At some point today, I'll throw on my vinyl copies of Alone Together, Carter's brilliant 1972 duo album with guitarist Jim Hall, and Piccolo, a quartet date recorded at Sweet Basil in 1977 (featuring Barron, alongside Buster Williams and Ben Riley). But I will also now be listening online to Carter's arrangements of John Williams music from the original Star Wars films, and mulling over the action at eBay.

Happy birthday, Ron Carter! And yes, May the Fourth be with you, too.