Monday 20 September 2004
The pianist Bill Carrothers in the horrors of the 1914-18 War
The jazz pianist Bill Carrothers, born in 1964 in Minneapolis, gained a name for himself at the end of the 90’s with two recordings, one in trio with Anton Denner on saxophone and Bill Stewart on drums, A Band in All Hope (Bridge Boy Music), partly inspired by a reading of The Divine Comedy; the other, Duets with Bill Stewart (Birdology) highlighting the creative and artistic relationship between the two musicians. Then there was his strange solo album, touchingly poignant in many places, The Blues and the Greys (Bridge Boy Music), where the soldiers from the North in blue and those from the South in grey during the American Civil War of 1861-1865 are brought to life in songs and tunes of the period. Carrothers is a passionate history-lover and comes back to history today with this new double album, Armistice 1918. We’re in Europe during the First World War of 1914-1918, the war that marked our real entry into the 20th century, according to some. Carrothers taps a mixed repertoire, that of the early days of jazz, because the United States was involved in the conflict and so jazz left its home ground; then that of the soldiers’ songs that they whistled amongst themselves during the long night watches. No war hymns, just tunes to be remembered before plunging into the abyss of horror. This is more what the first CD is about, whereas the second is more concerned with Carrothers’ views on the whole subject, so his own compositions predominate. He’s more willing to leave the key points in a given theme behind and venture out further into improvisation. The overall tone is more sombre.
But Carrothers does not take on this Armistice 1918 alone. Drew Gress on double bass and Bill Stewart on drums constitute the basic trio with Carrothers. Matt Turner on cello fits in perfectly (‘Let me Call You Sweetheart’), as does Peg Carrothers as the vocalist. Her voice has a fresh candour to it, transparency and vibrancy all at once. At last a musician’s wife who’s there because of her own talent. Sometimes there’s a choir that includes the musicians, the sound engineer and the producer, and a percussionist and a clarinettist are also introduced with finesse. All this in a handsome package with a thick booklet, totally in harmony with the serious theme and the transparence and intelligence of the music.
The pianist Bill Carrothers is no ordinary man. He was born and now lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota (incidentally, the town featured in the film Fargo) part of what might be called “another America”. As a child, Bill loved to listen to the stories that one of his grandfather’s friends used to tell about the Great War, that of 1914-1918, coughing his lungs out as he did so because he’d been gassed at the Front. These stories must have left more trace than he thought, because when he came across a book recounting the War, certain images came flooding back. He explains all this magnificently in the text of the very special booklet, illustrated with some amazing photos, that, along with the double album, go to make up this high quality production (quality in both editorial and discographic terms): Armistice 1918. The work recalls the Great War through music of the period, songs written for American and English soldiers. Carrothers plays them with his usual soft and haunted approach, as if his chords and melodies were crossing through a halo of constantly changing light; he sometimes plays solo, sometimes in trio, with Drew Gress and Bill Stewart united like the fingers on your hand providing the superb rhythm section. Not forgetting the songs sung by his wife Peg in her pure crystalline voice. Some pieces call for a larger group, with cello, bass clarinet and choirs. All this adds up to something very beautiful and utterly different.
What inner force pushed Bill Carrothers into carving out this little slice of history in an episode that figures amongst the most tragic in all History (with a capital H), divinely and devilishly devastating as it was - that of the bloody trenches of the 14-18 Great War? Not the least of the paradoxes here, where art and talent are equivalent, is that the American pianist, a dab hand at moving from acoustic to electric, has chosen to illustrate this love story from and about the War from a strictly musical point of view. Passion, pure passion is the key here - a passion for history and a passion for music. Seeking to make sense through one or the other or both, for as Carrothers says, “Through my music, I’m trying to tell the story of that piece of history, what exactly happened between the relative innocence of 1914 and the wasteland of November 11, 1918…” A ghastly mixture of blunders, raw emotion, blood, compassion and unjustified human madness. The librettist of any such work, (we might call it a contemporary opera) might have been tempted into grandiloquence, ceremony, a monument erected to the dead. Not a bit of it ? the story in question remains
firmly entrenched in the daily life of the protagonists in the conflict, in the tangible and very real emotions and innermost feelings of the so-called poilus. The chords, notes and melodies float by to illustrate the main theme, dotting the silence in detached syllables, or hammered out when necessary, to provide a landmark. This is the historical background; one senses a dense musical thread running through behind it, but in contrast to the barbed wire of war, there are no barbs on the music. In a clear, ethereal voice, like someone reciting lines by Apollinaire, a lost country or a lost love is evoked (‘America I Love You’). A few lightly picked chords suggest flowers once planted in the earth, now blooming delicately (‘Roses of Picardy’). The gentleness of a trio means a soft romantic air wafting through under the captivating sound of Drew Gress. But madness, volleys of gunfire, mortal anguish all raise their ugly notes under the rage of Bill Stewart’s percussion (‘Trench Raid’). The idea here is to emphasize, suggest, titillate the
imagination so as to refine people’s consciousness, as well as their knowledge. Bill Carrothers, pianist, citizen and musician alike, has set himself a challenge: to transport people literally towards something more meaningful, towards greater understanding, more humanity in a wiser dose.