Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bill and the Night and the Music

It takes a devilishly divergent mind to even conceive of improvisation on themes from nursery rhymes and mass media promotion. That Bill Carrothers’ latest recording (Play Day) sports idiosyncratic interpretations of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” “The Itsty Bitsy Spider” and the Oscar Mayer Wiener theme song isn’t really all that surprising if you are familiar with Carrothers. Simultaneously traditional and avant, playful and deadly serious, always insidiously brilliant, Carrothers goes where everyone has been yet few if any dare to reconstruct, and all while staying within an acoustic environment.

A Twin Cities native now living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when not touring in Europe, Carrothers returns “home” for the holidays, giving us at least one opportunity each year to hear him in a small club setting. This past weekend, the celebration was at the Artists Quarter in the sublime company of Gordy Johnson and Kenny Horst. Yet a lot of the action was solo, as Bill often creates tangled and enticing prologues that perhaps leave even his bandmates pondering the destination; sometimes the prologue becomes its own destination, a solo performance so complete in its development that there’s no need, no room for another voice. Leave perfection alone.

A student of military history, Carrothers’ repertoire is a classic piano roll of popular songs from 19th and early 20th century parlors, but dissected and reassembled by a 21st century Merlin. Last January, he brought his acclaimed Armistice 1918 ensemble to the AQ, eerie interpretations of both popular and military tunes of the era. The latest trio sets were more eclectic if nevertheless pure Carrothers magic. Where many musicians infuse their original compositions or covers with quotes from well known standards or pop culture tunes, Bill’s often humorous deviations are not mere quotes but evolutionary transpositions; he doesn’t simply toss out the thought but marries the concepts, creating enduring relationships. Sometimes those relationships are purely musical, sometimes the connections more metaphysical.

As an improviser, Bill Carrothers uses multiple devices from the gitgo. Starting off Friday’s opening set with “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” and moving on to “Billie’s Bounce,” “Blood Count,” and a solo “Moonlight Serenade,” he combined eccentric extended chords with thickly overlapping notes, often disguising but never really subverting the melody. Or melodies—just when you think you have identified Bill’s theme, gears switch, new ideas enter, another tune evolves. The so-called “wisdom” that certain notes don’t work as chord extensions is simply ignored and disproved by Carrothers; “dissonant” harmonies never seem acrimonious, just interesting, launching pads for another idea.

A prolonged piano solo introduced “Nature Boy,” building to a dark vamp of bass and mallets, evolving slowly, filled with hesitations, like a backroad journey to a popular tourist attraction, sure of the destination but startled by the scenic detours along the way. On the other hand, Carrothers gives tunes like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” such abstract reconfigurations that the destination seems unfamiliar until the last bend in the road.

Opening the second night with “You and the Night and Music,” Kenny Horst’s long cymbal decays heightened awareness of Bill’s own use of sustained notes, a quality that I have found particularly appealing in much of his work; his notes often linger in the air like chimes. Staying with the season, “White Christmas” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” swirled with echoes of other holiday fare while the core theme of “Autumn Leaves” emerged only fleetingly through a haze of modal experiments tossed among the threesome. Perhaps one of the highlights of the weekend was Bill’s solo “My Old Kentucky Home,” a sweetly wistful hymn accompanied by his most audible vocalizations of the set. Stephen Foster? There’s a lot more where this comes from, on the new release, The Voices That Are Gone, a collaboration among cellist Matt Turner, Bill and Bill’s wife, vocalist Peg Carrothers.

Bill’s been busy lately. Both the Stephen Foster project and Play Day (on Bill’s Bridge Boy Music) were recorded here in Minneapolis at Creation Audio, at least in part during breaks from performing Armistice last winter. And there’s a new release, The Best Is Yet to Come Volume 1(Pirouet), from Marc Copland with Bill and trumpeter Tim Hagans (that’s two pianos and trumpet!). Copland is also responsible for uncovering a never-released set from 1992 led by Bill with Gary Peacock and Bill Stewart, now issued on Pirouet as Home Row. But my current favorite has been rotating in my car stereo for the past two months—After Hours, recorded at the AQ with Billy Peterson and Kenny Horst, released in France early in the decade and now reissued on Bridge Boy Music. Like most everything else he touches, After Hours is filled with familiar standards (“My Heart Belongs to Daddy” is lethal) that have been given new and remarkable life.

OK, so my musical heart belongs to Bill.

Photos: (Top to bottom) Kenny Horst, Gordy Johnson, and Bill Carrothers at the Artists Quarter on December 26th. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Lead Sheet, December 26 - January 1

For local jazz fans, the best gifts come after the holidays this year. Fortunately, the sequence allows us to enjoy both.

Among the most innovative musicians to call the Twin Cities “home” are pianist Bill Carrothers and two-thirds of the Bad Plus, Dave King and Reid Anderson. Carrothers, a student of the late Bobby Peterson who performs far more often in Europe than stateside, takes the weekend gig at the Artists Quarter. With Gordy Johnson and Kenny Horst, this is hardly a pick-up band for Carrothers. They might even give us a taste of Bill’s “new” release on Pirouet, Home Row, recorded in 1992 with Gary Peacock and Bill Stewart and for some reason held back from release until now. Carrothers is among an elite pool of modernists who never stops creating within the acoustic universe—and his is a far-reaching universe where every means of generating sound from the instrument is fair game. Bill can defy every tenet of harmony to produce always-harmonious (if sometimes off quadrant) results. For the past few months his After Hours release with Horst and Billy Peterson (originally issued about seven years ago) has stayed in my car stereo rotation. It’s glorious. The tunes are all familiar standards, the sounds and rhythms are all new. You never know what you’ll hear from Bill, just that he will enchant, challenge, and entertain. December 26-27, 9 pm at the Artists Quarter (408 St. Peter Street, St. Paul;

Also getting underway tonight but continuing through Monday is the annual holiday residency of The Bad Plus, aka Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King. Reid and Dave, along with New York-based keyboard monster Craig Taborn, jammed together as teens before their burgeoning careers took them off in separate directions. As the 20th century closed, Anderson and King, along with Wisconsin native Ethan Iverson, discovered that together they had something very unique. They released a couple self-productions before landing a gig at the Village Vanguard. American jazz has never been the same. They’ve gone on to international rock-star status, a spate of highly regarded albums on Columbia, and now their own label, Do the Math. Each of the threesome is a skilled composer, although their covers of mostly rock fare tend to get more attention.

There’s no doubt that by tackling (and reinventing) the works of Black Sabbath and David Bowie, The Bad Plus has pulled in an audience that might not otherwise think of jazz as more than their grandparents’ music. But this remains music that their grandparents can nevertheless appreciate for its accessibility and clever reconstructions, and simply for the artistry of each musician. They have a new release on EmArcy (For All I Care), already out in Europe and expected locally in February, including vocals from Twin Cities’ alternative rocker Wendy Lewis. Lewis is not expected to turn up at the Dakota this weekend but no doubt we will get a taste of the new material. Dave King introduced a few snippets at his master class at MacPhail last month.

No one plays four consecutive nights at the Dakota. Except the Bad Plus. December 26-29, 7 and 9:30 pm (1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis;

If you hit the early set at the Dakota tonight or tomorrow, or plan to catch the late sets at the AQ, consider stopping in for a drink and a crab cake at Cue at the Guthrie and enjoy what might be the last weekend of coolly sophisticated and swinging jazz at this classy Mill District venue. Maud Hixson (December 26th) and Charmin Michelle (December 27th), as well as Dean Brewington (New Year’s Eve) should provide ample justification for Cue to continue live music. The music is free, parking is not, but consider it a good trade off.

Finally, New Year's Eve means a number of options all over town, some pricey, some not. You can catch an intimate early set (seating at 5 pm) with Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson at the Times; no cover at all for Dean Brewington and his quartet at Cue; or my favorite NY Eve activity, the party at the Artists Quarter with Carole Martin and the Dave Karr Quartet. Carole is a NY Eve tradition, just like the down-home buffet and noisemakers. The cover has gone up to $33 but consider the food, champagne and the feel of a party with all of your friends and none of the prep and clean-up! No formal attire required. At midnight, you can count on Carole to share the stage with daughter Dawn Horst for some rib-kickin' blues.

Happy New Year from JazzINK!
Photos, Top-Bottom: Reid Anderson of the Bad Plus; Carole Martin; Bill Carrothers. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Lead Sheet: December 19-26

Two weeks in a row! Maybe this will become a habit. I just need to figure out when the week begins—Friday? Sunday? Let’s go from weekend to weekend?

Jazz isn’t taking a holiday this season, in fact the end of the year often brings about some of the best in music. And the offerings this weekend alone give jazz a broad definition. You can hear the most classic of swing and song or the most “out” and envelope-stretching of modern improvisation.

A rare three-night gig at the Artists Quarter in St. Paul presents the very hip, very on-the-edge trio, Happy Apple (December 19-21). I first heard Happy Apple before they hit the international scene as part of a double bill at the Cedar Cultural Center, maybe seven years ago. They followed a very cool set of solo bass by Adam Linz, no slouch himself when it comes to on-the-edge innovation. But as much as I loved Linz, I was totally thrown off guard by Happy Apple. I left after three tunes. At the time, I would have said that I was using the word “tunes” generously. About five years later, and after many hours of listening to increasingly out music, I braved another Happy Apple set, at the Artists Quarter. And I enjoyed myself and the many turns and twists of their collective improvising. I suspect the difference was an intersection between some changes in Happy Apple’s approach and changes in my own listening and thinking about modern jazz. By then I had also heard saxman Michael Lewis with his other main band, Fat Kid Wednesdays, and drummer Dave King with the inimitable Bad Plus. Both bands have significantly different sounds than Happy Apple, but I think the familiarity and appreciation of the musicians in other contexts creates a navigable pathway into the music. With Lewis, King and bassist Erik Fratzke, Happy Apple will keep your ears and brain fully engaged. Be warned if you go that this tends to be the biggest draw of any gig at the AQ, so arrive early! Sets at 9 pm Friday and Saturday and at 8 pm on Sunday.

On the other side of the jazz universe is Bing and the Andrews Sisters, a musical revue starring Arne Fogel, Kathy Mueller, Lisa Pallen and Aimee Fischer at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (December 21, 2 pm). Fact is the show is sold out so if you don’t have a ticket, your chances are slim although always worth calling the box office to see if tickets have been turned back. Arne Fogel has been keeping the voice of Bing Crosby alive and well in the Twin Cities for years, through live performances and his radio show, The Bing Shift. He’s also had the privilege of working with Bing’s widow Kathryn Crosby and examining some of the papers and other memorabilia of Bing’s estate. Not sold out and at a more intimate venue, Arne performs Friday night (December 19th) at Cue at the Guthrie, maybe the classiest if unintended spots for jazz in the Twin Cities. As I mentioned last week, this might be the end of jazz at Cue if the new owner isn't convinced that jazz and Cue were meant for each other. Meanwhile, check it out for yourself and tell him what you think. (Alicia Wiliey, Maud Hixson, Charmin Michelle and Dean Brewington are on the schedule for the rest of December—check out

Connie Evingson is always a good bet, and she’ll be at the Dakota on Monday (December 22, 7 pm), undoubtedly with some frankincense and myrrh from her holiday recording (The Secret of Christmas) and likely more from her recent release with Dave Frishberg (Little Did I Dream). But you never know, Connie is the most eclectic jazz singer around, and she is as likely to pull out Lennon and McCartney as Peggy Lee or George Gershwin. Or Django Reinhardt. And she covers them all as if they were written with her in mind. Dave Karr tends to appear whenever Connie is near, and that is always a good thing.

Like the big sales, some of the most exciting jazz will come right after Christmas next weekend, when the highly creative pianist Bill Carrothers returns to the AQ (December 26-27) and the highly flammable Bad Plus returns to the Dakota (December 26-29). They overlap. For me it is a no brainer, this means two nights of Bill and two nights with the BP. I’m warning you early because you will need reservations for the BP and you better not wait.

Happy Holidays from JazzINK!

Photos: (Top) Connie Evingson at last summer's Bloomington Jazz Festival; Arne Fogel; Happy Apple's Dave King; Michael Lewis. All photos by Andrea Canter.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Lead Sheet-- December 14-20

Someone suggested I do this every week. That was weeks ago. I’ll try harder.

Seems to be the great piano week at the Dakota. Attorney by day and composer/performer by night, Larry McDonough celebrates the international release of his Simple Gifts. His abstract improvisations and experiments with time and space are hardly simple, but it is a gift to see Larry and his quartet on the Dakota stage (Monday, 12/15). Next, Laura Caviani holds her nearly annual celebration featuring music from Angels We Haven’t Heard. Actually Laura is the angel we hear as often as we can—whether it be her playful takes on Thelonious Monk or her own, often blues infused compositions. And with frequent partner Lucia Newell on vocals and the always sympathetic timekeeping of bassist Tom Lewis and drummer Phil Hey, the holidays have never sounded better (12/16). Come back to the Dakota Thursday night and catch one of the youngest and brightest stars of the keyboard, Dan Musselman. Dan flexed his solo muscles and compositional chops last spring with the release of Ruminations. In solo or quartet context, he dazzles with an intriguing sense of harmony and melody. Dan will soon release a duet album with songbird Rachel Holder, who might turn up for a tune or two (12/18). Visit for more on these three keyboard giants.

I’m heading out to the Capri Theater for the 2008 edition of A Copasetic Christmas Carol with honey-hued singer Charmin Michelle, versatile saxman Doug Haining and the Twin Cities Seven. The music will swing and the very hip version of Dickens will keep you warm through the season. Only two shows, tonight and the Sunday matinee (12/14). Check for tickets at 651-209-6799 or

There are no weak line-ups at the Artists Quarter in St. Paul. You can always count on the Tuesday Night Band (B-3 Organ Night), on Tuesdays of course. This week you can catch a too-infrequent appearance of Exquisite Corps, aka the Dave Roos Quartet. Roos is one of those guitarists who is hard to define and impossible to ignore; this music has its own form and soul (12/17). Just about every month (and it seems, always on a Thursday) you can enjoy the Phil Hey Quartet. Subtle and sympathetic when backing touring artists and vocalists, Phil gets downright aggressive with his own bands and will put on a master class in drumkit magic. Plus it’s a great opportunity to enjoy one of the finest vibes players you’ll ever hear, anywhere, Dave Hagedorn (12/18). Fans of modern improvised music will be lined up this weekend for Happy Apple. With saxman Mike Lewis, bassist Erik Fratzke and drummer Dave King, not much is predictable except high energy and innovation (12/19-12/21). Check out

Finally, you just have this week to run down to the Lagoon Cinema in Uptown and see the acclaimed new film, Anita O’Day: The Life of Jazz Singer. What a voice, what a life. Shows at 2 pm and 7 pm daily through 12/18. I’ll have to hit a matinee, there’s too much music in the evenings this week!

Planning ahead? The future of jazz at Cue at the Guthrie seems in doubt despite the apparent popularity of this very classy venue. Cue, the bar and restaurant on the main level of the theater, glass and gleaming metal interior looking out into the Mill District, has presented a cadre of jazz artists every Friday and Saturday night for the past six months or more. Rumor has it that a new owner is not so sure this will continue beyond the holidays. So if you are looking for a cool spot for a drink, appetizers or the full menu, make a reservation for the slow 8-10 pm period when most are in the theaters..... and enjoy Arne Fogel (12/19), Alicia Wiley (12/20), Maud Hixson (12/26), Charmin Michelle (12/27) or Dean Brewington (12/31). Maybe if enough of us applaud, the music will go on into 2009.
Photos: (Top) Maud Hixson with Rick Carlson at Cue; Phil Hey; Dan Musselman with Rachel Holder. Photos by Andrea Canter.

James Carter: Every Sound in the Galaxy

I can picture him as a two year old, sitting on the kitchen floor, or perhaps in the living room, grabbing at nearby objects and putting them to his mouth. He blows hard, he blows softly, intrigued by the sounds he creates, giggling at his accomplishments and then reaching for yet another object to find yet another sound. A squeal, a honk, a gurgle, a sputter, a pop.

Maybe it never happened that way but now, nearly 40, James Carter brings a wide-eyed happy explorer’s antics to his music, grabbing one horn or another (he plays every saxophone, bass clarinet and flute), and trying out yet another way to generate a sound not quite like the last--- or the next.

During his recent two-night gig at the Dakota with his touring quintet, Carter often evoked the sound of electronic gadgetry with a merely acoustic arsenal, bending notes like bent circuits, pulling his octaves beyond the mere 12 tones, transforming notes into punctuation marks.

Instantly we’re awed by the physicality of his musical presence—a superhuman lung capacity; an almost graceful dexterity as fingers twist and tumble over brass keys; seemingly effortless intonation at the lowest and highest realms of his horns; a reach so high into the upper range of his soprano on Django Reinhardt’s “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure” that you fully expect your wine glass to shatter into a thousand diamonds. And one has to wonder if James Carter really needs his props at all, as so many of his sound effects seem to rise from within James himself, the controlled passage of air, placement of tongue, even vocalizations that vibrate against that column of steam rushing through the flute like a giant kazoo (“Dodo’s Bounce”) as if adding a reed where none belongs.

With such physical capacity, one can overlook the artistic integrity Carter brings to his own compositions and covers. Like pianist Ahmad Jamal, Carter is a master of sudden changes in direction, rhythm and dynamics—he can stop on a dime and then explode as if stepping on a musical landmine. His choices of quotations are both seasonal (December audiences treated to frequent licks from “Sleigh Ride” and “Jingle Bells”) and serious (including expanding his “Bro Dolphy” with sustained passages of tango and march from Carmen), yet never musically out of place.

No small part of Carter’s artistic success is his choice of bandmates, each an extension of his array of instruments, each a fellow innovator conducting sonic experiments in tandem with the leader. Not surprisingly, most hale from Detroit. Pianist Gerard Gibbs has been the core of Carter’s Organ Trio, but his higher calling appears to be acoustic piano. Throughout the two evenings, Gibbs unleashed his own menagerie of sounds, and like Carter, he doesn’t rely solely on convention—when fingertips were insufficient, he used his palms, his elbow, even his feet. But it wasn’t all fire and brimstone; lyricism and swing are fully embedded in his repertoire.

Ralphe Armstrong proved to be one of the most entertaining bassists to perform at the Dakota, one whose facial expressions were directly parallel to his wide assortment of pizzicato and arco tricks. His glissando magic often mirrored the whines, squeals and slides of the horns; with bow in hand (“Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure” and “Christmas Time Is Here”), he became another percussionist tossing snap/crackle/pops across the stage. Everyone pays attention to the bass solo when delivered by Ralphe Armstrong.

Leonard King is a long-time associate and mentor of James Carter, and the drummer recently relocated to the Twin Cities. Yet we rarely see him apart from his gigs with Carter, truly a crime as he is one of the most broadly talented and quick-thinking trapmasters around. His sustained solos were infrequent but his presence and energy never absent. On “Hymn of the Orient,” in particular, he stoked the furnace, keeping the heat on high, yet was constantly adjusting the thermostat with sudden shifts of rhythm. And no one had more fun than King.

The newest addition to James Carter’s ensemble is Chicago-based, AACM trumpeter Corey Wilkes. If Hargrove and Payton led the post-Wynton generation of trumpet kings, then Sean Jones, Christian Scott and now Corey Wilkes lead the post-Hargrove surge, and Wilkes might be the baddest lion of them all. His efforts on trumpet and flugelhorn here seemed to blend Dizzy Gillespie and Lester Bowie, matching Carter’s control and innovative spirit, physical power and artistic heart. And playfulness--at one point he managed both flugelhorn and trumpet simultaeously. His tone was angular and hollow, his lines chromatic braid. One of the joys of both evenings was the jousting conversations between Carter and Wilkes, often building to a cacophony of two birds debating politics (e.g., “Hymn of the Orient” and “Anchor Man”).

And no James Carter visit to the Twin Cities seems complete without a guest appearance from his “musical father,” Donald Washington, and his son Kevin. Wielding his baritone sax, the elder Washington proceeded to take apart every sound Carter could throw at him in a thirty-minute blowing session, punctuated right and left by Kevin’s fast and furious percussion. The lineage was very clear, from Donald to both James and Kevin.

Carter’s most recent CD, Present Tense, strong as it is, pales in comparison to his live performances. Like the Roy Hargrove Quintet at the Dakota a few months earlier, this ensemble holds back nothing and in the process incorporates everything, every sound of the galaxy in orbit around a supernova named James Carter.
Photos: (Top) James Carter; Ralphe Armstrong; Leonard King; Corey Wilkes. All from December 10, 2008 at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis by Andrea Canter.