Friday, December 21, 2007

First must-see of 2008: Bill Carrothers' "Armistice 1918"

Bill Carrothers

Originally published on on December 21, 2007

Jazz pianist and composer Bill Carrothers has been a history buff since childhood. At age 10, he spent time with a World War I veteran and friend of his grandfather, taking in the old man's stories. As a boy growing up in Excelsior, he was fascinated by World War II. His interest in the Civil War was piqued by the Ken Burns documentary that first aired in 1990, and the fact that his great-grandfather was a lieutenant in Robert E. Lee's Army.

Meanwhile, Carrothers became a musician, taking piano lessons from the family's church organist, studying with Twin Cities legend Bobby Peterson, spending a year in the jazz program at North Texas State, moving to New York to try out the jazz scene there, then returning to the Midwest to settle in Michigan. (Listen to some of his work here.)

Today he makes his home in the Upper Peninsula but plays most of his music in Europe, where he tours frequently. (MinnPost caught up with him while he was in Messina, Italy.) Like many American jazz artists, Carrothers has found European audiences more accepting and supportive.

His early recordings include "The Blues and the Greys" (1993), a collection of Civil War-era songs. "One might think that Civil War music would be a rather abrupt change (from jazz), but it's not," Carrothers explains. "One of the things that makes jazz standards so appealing is their open-endedness and malleability. The same can be said of Civil War music."

Raves from the French

And for World War I music. In June 2003, Carrothers brought a group of musicians to Creation Audio in Minneapolis to record a two-CD set for release on the now-defunct French label Sketch. Supported in part by funding from a war museum in France's Somme region, Armistice 1918 won raves and the 2004 Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros, France's Grammy. Writing for The New York Times, Ben Ratliff called it "an ambitious work of repertory and imagination." Jazz magazines around the world included it in their Top 10 lists.

Armistice 1918 will be performed in the United States for the first time on Friday, Jan. 4 and Saturday, Jan. 5 at the Artists' Quarter. Forgive me; it's not exactly holiday cheer we're spreading here. But MinnPost goes on break the week between Christmas and New Year's, so this is my first chance to alert you to the first must-see jazz event of 2008.

Inspired by the work of Great War poets including Wilfred Owen (killed in action in Belgium at age 25), Armistice 1918 is a two-disc tone poem to World War I, poignant and deeply moving. It begins with the relative innocence of 1914 and songs of a man and woman in love ("Hello Ma Baby," "Cuddle Up a Little Closer"). The sweetness ends with the call to arms, separation ("Say Au Revoir"), and a sense of hope and purpose ("America, I Love You") that turns quickly to foreboding.

Disc 2 takes us to the front with popular tunes ("Roses of Picardy") and haunting, jarring originals and group improvisations ("Trench Raid," "No-Man's Land," "Funk Hole"). We hear death, disillusionment, devastation and despair. The closing track, "Armistice Day," is the sound of distant bells and, finally, silence.

A family affair

The recording features Carrothers on piano and his wife, Peg Carrothers, on voice. She sings on several tracks; her pure, clear soprano floats and soars. Bill calls her "the Angel of the Battlefield," and I couldn't imagine Armistice 1918 without her. Also on the recording: Matt Turner (cello), Drew Gress (double bass), Bill Stewart (drums), Jay Epstein (percussion), and Mark Henderson (bass clarinet).

For the Artists' Quarter engagement, Peg Carrothers, Turner and Epstein will return. Gordy Johnson will play bass, and the other two musicians — Jean-Marc Foltz (bass clarinet), Dre Pallemaerts (drums) — are coming from Europe. They'll record a children's CD with Bill and Peg during their stay in the States.

Plans are to play Armistice 1918 straight through in two sets, just like the CDs. With apologies to Artists' Quarter owner Kenny Horst, who's trying to make a living while keeping covers low, this may not be for you if what you want is a night of jazz as entertainment and background music. But if you're willing to listen quietly and intently — and if, as Carrothers hopes, you "come with an open mind and heart" — you'll experience the musical equivalent of a great war movie: moments of tender nostalgia, horror, irony, loss and regret, exhaustion and grief.

Armistice 1918 is about then, and of course it's about now, as increasing numbers of Americans and people around the world speak out against the war in Iraq. "I think if people studied history a bit more," Carrothers told MinnPost, "we wouldn't be so shocked by the events of today, and might be able to have a bit more perspective about our modern problems."

What: Bill Carrothers' Armistice Band U.S. premiere
Where: The Artists' Quarter, 408 St. Peter St., St. Paul
When: 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4, and Saturday, Jan. 5
How much: $15
Phone: 651-292-1359

Upcoming picks

Sisters in Song: A holiday show by three terrific local singers: Vicky Mountain, Dorothy Doring, and Lila Ammons. Proof that you don't have to go downtown for jazz, they will perform at the Dakota County Music Café at the Holiday Inn in Burnsville. Friday, Dec. 21, and Saturday, Dec. 22, 7:30 p.m. No cover.

Frank Morgan Memorial: The great alto saxophonist Frank Morgan died on Friday, Dec. 14, not long after returning home from a European tour. Expect a brief service followed by music from those who knew and loved him. The Artists' Quarter, 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 23. No cover, but donations will be accepted.

The Bad Plus: Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King have made an annual tradition of performing here at Christmas time. Do not expect a holiday show. Then again, you never know what to expect from this iconoclastic trio. The Dakota, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 26-29 ($28—$40).

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