Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bill Carrothers: One of a kind

When: Friday and Saturday, Dec. 26–27, 2008 • Where: Artists’ QuarterWho: Bill Carrothers, piano; Gordy Johnson, bass; Kenny Horst, drums

Maybe it’s because he makes his home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he rides snowmobiles and goes blueberry picking with a shotgun in case he and a bear meet at the same bush, that Bill Carrothers’ playing is full of space, even when his notes are stacked in chords and linked in long glissandos. Maybe it’s because he lives outside an old copper mining town called Mass City (population around 600, one general store, one blinker light) and plays mostly in Europe that it doesn’t feel tied to a particular place or time.

Hearing him over a weekend at the end of December at the AQ, I’m reminded again of how unique Bill Carrothers is. He’s avant-garde and traditional, serious and playful, free-flying and grounded in history (maybe because his full name is William Gaylord Carrothers III—thanks for that fact, You never know where he’ll go next, whether within a live set or on his recordings.

This weekend he has three new CDs available for sale, which he mentions only in passing but Davis will gladly tell you about at the door. The Voices That Are Gone: The Music of Stephen Foster is an art-songs collaboration with cellist Matt Turner and Carrothers’ wife, Peg, a vocalist. Play Day is a children’s CD that includes a loving ballad arrangement of the old Oscar Mayer song (“Wiener Mood”). Home Row is straight-ahead piano trio goodness; recorded in 1992, it features Gary Peacock on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. Writing for the New York Times, Nate Chinen suggests we treat Home Row like a modern recording and forget that it sat on a shelf somewhere for 15 years.

On both nights we hear standards transformed into originals by Carrothers’ passion, improvisational skills, vast musical knowledge, far-ranging intelligence, and sly wit. “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” “Billie’s Bounce” (which ends with a quote from “In Walked Bud,” played fast and loose), “Blue Evening,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and a delightful “All of Me”—dusted off, reinterpreted, and kicked in the pants.

Then “Nature Boy.” Carrothers thinks about this one before he begins, fingers poised, head bowed. He becomes very quiet. It starts as a solo piano piece, a beautiful rumination. Kenny Horst comes in with mallets and a soft, persistent beat; Gordy picks up the melody on his bass. It’s breathtaking—a song everyone has heard countless times yet it feels like the first time, yet it’s suffused with the past and tradition and all who have gone before. Played with reverence and grandness, it ends with a wordless poem. No disrespect to the AQ’s piano but I’d love to hear Carrothers on a Steinway someday.

“Just You Just Me.” “Call Me Irresponsible” (with lots of notes). “This Is Worth Fighting For,” a WWII recruiting song that blends “America the Beautiful” with “Amazing Grace” and “The Christmas Song.” “So in Love.” A lush and lengthy series of chords that seems headed toward “When I Fall in Love” but ends up somewhere else. Gordy and Kenny are hyper-watchful; it’s clear this night is going wherever Carrothers wants to take it, not by a set list. “Con Alma.” “Rhythm-a-ning.” “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story.

Sometimes Carrothers seems to forget he’s part of a trio and plays like he’s alone. Perhaps he forgets us, the audience, as well. Maybe it's because he takes off his shoes and performs in his stocking feet that he seems so comfortable, so at home. The night ends with “Thanks for the Memories,” and I think of Bob Hope and his USO Christmas shows and our service men and women still overseas and I’m pretty sure that’s where my mind is supposed to go.

We can stay for only the first set on Saturday, long enough to hear “You and the Night and the Music” (tender, reflective, tinged with sadness), more “Moonlight Serenade,” a not at all wistful version of “Autumn Leaves,” “My Old Kentucky Home” (a tune from his new CD with Matt Turner), a “Let It Snow” that morphs into “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Whatever Carrothers wants to play. A phrase from Kenny Werner pops into my head: Effortless mastery.

Watch Don Berryman's video of "Blood Count" from Friday night.

Photos to come.

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