Sunday, October 13, 2013

A night at the Artists’ Quarter: Bill Carrothers After Hours Trio

Bill Carrothers by John Whiting
Saturday, October 12, 2013: Bill Carrothers, piano; Billy Peterson, bass; Kenny Horst, drums

Now that the word is out that the Artists’ Quarter, the storied St. Paul basement jazz club, will close its doors on January 1, people are coming to see it before it’s gone.

Last night, the joint was jumping. Some were there out of curiosity, others because the recent press about the closing was the first time they’d heard of the AQ, since it has never been big on advertising.

But many were there to hear the weekend’s headliner, the great pianist Bill Carrothers. He’s one of several artists who live elsewhere but play semi-regularly at the AQ (we learned last night he’ll probably return in November) and nowhere else in the Twin Cities.

Davis Wilson, the AQ’s venerable doorman – a former sailor, voracious intellect, diehard liberal, Christmas Santa, and channeler of Lord Buckley – introduced Carrothers with his usual flair: “My lords and ladies, we at the Artists’ Quarter are pleased … and … flipped to present one of the most authentic geniuses in jazz. Pay close attention and dig it!”

Davis Wilson by John Whiting
And then Carrothers played a passionate, virtuosic, joyous, emotional program of tunes he picked out of the air, some of which took brief detours into other tunes he picked out of the air. 

After the final song in the last set, he said, “That was ‘Nature Boy.’ Before that, I have no idea. It’s all a blur. The more of a blur it is, the better it is.”

If you were sitting close enough, you could see him, before each song, put his hands over the keys, bow his head, lean in, and think … what next? You could see his fingers try out ideas in the air, his hands move slightly from key to key, chord to chord. Then he’d look up at Billy Peterson, say a word or two, and Peterson would turn quickly to Kenny Horst and repeat whatever Carrothers had said, and they’d be off.

The After Hours Trio by John Whiting
Over the course of two sets, we heard ballads and standards, Cole Porter and Monk, a hymn, a bugle call (played on piano), a bit of Barbra Streisand, and that’s just what I was able to identify. My loose reconstruction of the night’s music (which I will happily update/correct):
A ballad
Something swinging
“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”
A standard
“On Green Dolphin Street,” with moments of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and what might have been an old Glenn Miller tune
“But Not for Me,” with a taste of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing”
“Joy Spring”
“Just in Time”
“Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” a.k.a. the Navy Hymn
“Let’s Misbehave”
“Nature Boy”
A ballad, with moments of “Evergreen”
Carrothers can play anything, and does – dense block chords and airy arpeggios, cries and whispers, complex rhythms and simple 4/4s. His imagination is boundless and his dynamics are exquisite. He must have seen and experienced real beauty in his life, because he communicates it without reservation. He’s playful, but privately, with the other musicians on stage and not so much with the audience; he never tells jokes or stories and seldom lets you know what he just played or is about to play, which explains my spotty set list. 

Most jazz musicians know a lot of songs, but Carrothers’ enormous mental library, the one he wanders through and draws from during every live performance, includes material not found in many jazz musicians’ books; since Carrothers is a history buff; you might hear melodies or phrases from World War I tunes or Stephen Foster. His lead-ins are thoughtful and evasive. You never know where he’s going until he gets there. He takes as long as he wants, improvising his way in, composing on the fly, until suddenly you’re hearing “Let’s Misbehave,” but you’ve come in through a side door you thought led somewhere else.

Billy Peterson by John Whiting
When artists from out of town perform at the AQ, they usually play with area musicians, sometimes for the first time. That happens in jazz all the time and offers its own brand of thrills; since improvisation is central to jazz, you never know how strangers will get along. Will they play well together? Will they listen to each other, complement each other? Will the music take off? Although Carrothers makes his home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this weekend was not the first time he played with Peterson and Horst.

The After Hours Trio is named for an album that came out in 1998 and features the same personnel. There’s a special rapport among these three, and they rise together. I’ve seen Peterson many times with many people, and some of his best playing has been with Carrothers. (One of Saturday's high points: as Carrothers approached Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” from multiple directions, Peterson played the melody up and down his bass strings, in different keys.)

Horst, who has drummed with everyone over decades as a musician and club owner (the AQ is his place), put aside what’s on everybody’s mind – that the club’s days are numbered – and played like the pro he is.

Kenny Horst by John Whiting
Are they numbered, or is the club's fate still unknown? Many AQ fans and supporters are not giving up. Anything can happen from now until January 1.

Between sets, there was talk at the back of the room about the costs of running a jazz club, and ways to bring in enough money to keep the place going, and how maybe St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman was going to step up. And how the phone is already ringing with people wanting reservations for what’s being called the final blowout, the New Year’s Eve party. (Reservations are not yet being taken.)

There were a lot of musicians in the house, which is normal, and a lot of first-timers, which is not. Some first-timers won’t return; others may, having gotten a taste of the music that happens in this place, and the warm, easy vibe of what is mainly a listening room. As Carrothers said after his encore, “This is the only full-time jazz club between here and a lot further than you want to drive. Tell your friends, tell your enemies. Have them come down here and we’ll settle it. Let’s keep this place alive.”

The joint was jumping

Bill Carrothers by John Whiting

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