It certainly didn't feel as though summer was drawing to a close as a sweat-soaked crowd gathered on Labor Day weekend under a blazing sun on Detroit's Hart Plaza to witness the first performance of guitar great Pat Metheny and famed bassist Ron Carter. When I mentioned to Carter I'd been fortunate enough to attend that Detroit Jazz Festival concert, giving me some idea of what to expect from the pair's reunion set for this weekend at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, he responded with a single word: "Surprise!"
That might be the most succinct way to explain why Carter has loomed so large in the jazz pantheon for the last half-century. He came to prominence as a member of the second great Miles Davis Quintet, alongside Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams. Since then, he has remained one of the most consistently in-demand bassists in jazz, appearing on well more than a thousand recordings, with everyone from George Benson to A Tribe Called Quest.
Carter left Davis' employ when the trumpet giant made his turn to electric music, and in the decades since, Carter has remained the most conservative of his former bandmates. Williams went on to play a key role in the fusion movement before his untimely death in 1997. Shorter is still pushing boundaries with his acclaimed quartet. And Hancock has blended nearly every style of music into his sound, winning the 2008 Grammy for album of the year for his Joni Mitchell tribute, River: The Joni Letters.
When Carter and Metheny take the stage together, the material will likely draw from the same repertoire Carter has played throughout his career. In Detroit, that included standards like "All the Things You Are" and "Summertime." Asked why those songs remained such potent sources of inspiration, Carter said simply, "There's stuff [in these tunes] that we haven't found to play yet."
Metheny is happy to have another chance to play with Carter, noting that the 100-degree weather in Detroit made that initial experience less than ideal. He said in an email the bassist "represents everything I love about music. . . . I think Mr. Carter is one of the consummate listening musicians ever. He has played in literally thousands of unique settings and is always able to find something that brings out the best in his associates, while always remaining true to his own very strong sense of identity. My goal would be to offer him the same in return."
Though Metheny is known to veer into more adventurous territory, typically supplementing his sound with synth guitar and even his solenoid-trigger battery of mechanical instruments known as the Orchestrion, he sticks to the six-string basics when playing with the famously stern and traditional Carter. "When Pat puts all of the other stuff away that he does, he really plays superbly," the bassist said. "It's fun to see him just taking the guitar out of the case, plugging it in, and playing without needing anything else."
The pair of headlining shows that will bring Carter and Metheny together Saturday in Cape May will be the latest in a long history of compelling duo performances for Carter. Best-known among them is his four-decade partnership with guitarist Jim Hall, who died in late 2013. Carter said the two worked so well together for so long because each had his own job to do: "Jim's job seemed to be to make a sketch of an arrangement, and my job was to make it work," he said with a chuckle.
"We had a great time for 40 years, man, and those two responsibilities played out in some wonderful music."
As for the difference between his interplay with Hall and his newfound collaboration with Metheny, Carter deadpanned, "About 30 years" - but quickly added: "Pat's what you call a quick study, and I'm sure those 30 years will melt away into 30 minutes. He's really a guitar historian; he knows the whole history of the guitar, and it always fascinates me to hear guys who are that steeped in the tradition, as part of that history comes through in what they play. I look forward to hearing some more history with Pat."
Ron Carter and Pat Metheny, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Schmidtchen Theater, 687 Route 9, Cape May. For more on this and other Exit Zero Jazz Festival events: 609-849-9202, exit0jazzfest.com.