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)