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Interview with Bill Carrothers

I’m more inspired by where I live and my everyday family life than I am by particular musicians or music. Family, trees, open space, solitude.

Last month I had the honour to interview Bill Carrothers. He has played with many people at so many places in the world, but home is where the heart is,  in particular with his family in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His passion is history, silence means home.

His cooperation with pianist Marc Copland. on the wellreceived album No Choices (which finds two artists on equal ground, deeply committed to the interpretive, interactive and conversational fundamentals of improvisation, John Kelman, All About Jazz, August 2006) has left the jazzworld breathlessly. At his last album Love and longing (2013, La Buisonne) Carrothers proofs his singing is of high level.

Bill Carrothers (born in Minneapolis, 1964) began his career as a teenager, when he played with local bands in his hometown; then in 1988, he moved to New York City. Carrothers has played many venues throughout the U. S. and Europe including the Village Gate, Knitting Factory, Birdland, Blues Alley, New Morning (Paris), the Audi Jazz Festival in Brussels, the Nevers Jazz Festival (where he shared the bill with Abbey Lincoln), the Montreal Jazz Festival , Jazz Middelheim, and the Marciac Festival in France. In the 1990s he played with Bill Stewart and Scott Colley, Herwig Gradischnig; in 1997 he worked on Dave Douglas’ album moving portraits. Birdology 1999 was a duo album with Bill Stewart. In October of 2000, Mr. Carrothers headlined the prestigious Rising Star Tour throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. He has been a leader on seventeen recordings, all of which have received critical acclaim. His sideman credits have included some of the greatest names in jazz, including Joe Beck, Scot t Colley, Buddy DeFranco, Dave Douglas, Curtis Fuller, Eric Gravatt, Drew Gress, Tim Hagans, Billy Higgins, Ari Hoenig, Lee Konitz, James Moody, Gary Peacock, Dewey Redman, Charlie Rouse, James Spaulding, Bill Stewart, Ben Street, Ira Sullivan, Toots Thielemans, and Benny Wallace. In the 1990s he played with Bill Stewart and Scott Colley, Herwig Gradischnig; in 1997 he worked on Dave Douglas’ album moving portraits. Birdology 1999 was a duo album with Bill Stewart. In trio with Stewart and saxophonist Anton Denner he recorded in 2002 his album Ghost Ships. In 2005 Bill recorded a duet album with pianist Marc Copland (No. choice, 2005). Read the critics on Penguin Guide.

Mr.Carrothers, you are professional active in music for 3 decades. How has music evolved since you started performing?

It’s getting more world music oriented. Less swing, less storytelling. It’s also becoming harder emotionally. More distant, more math-like, less playing with your heart on your sleeve. I don’t very often get the feeling that improvising musicians are “reading their diary” when they play. It’s emotionally cooler (and safer) now.

You started to play the piano early in your childhood . Why did you choose this instrument? Which instrument do you like best, beneath piano?

I’ve been playing the piano since I was 5, so it’s always been a part of my life. My mom felt that every child should have musical training at the piano as part of a rounded upbringing. Besides the piano, I really love playing the drums. I’m not particularly good at it, but I enjoy that.

You’ve been working with so many beautiful musicians, among many others: Buddy DeFranco, Dave Douglas, Curtis Fuller, Tim Hagans, Billy Higgins, Lee Konitz, James Moody, Gary Peacock, Dewey Redman, Charlie Rouse, Terrell Stafford, Ira Sullivan, Toots Thielemans and Bennie Wallace. What have you learned, working with them?

That’s too open-ended a question… I’ve learned from everyone that I’ve played with over the years. There would be no way to parse out what I learned from each of them. Except for Billy Higgins. He was the first really great drummer that I ever worked with and his pure love of the music is something that I have always remembered from the gigs we played together, and have tried to emulate in my own musical life.

You were inspired by Clifford Brown, Oscar Peterson and Shirley Horn. Who are you inspired by nowadays?carrothers and copland

I’m more inspired now by where I live and my everyday family life than I am by particular musicians or music. So my answer would be that it’s not so much a who but a what I’m inspired by now. Family, trees, open space, solitude.

What means silence for you?


You have your own pianotrio, you play solo, duets… What is your favourite format? Why?

I don’t have a favorite format. It’s more like I have a favorite way of going about making music and playing with people that feel the same way. Open ended, with little or no discussion, and ready for anything. And playing every night like it’s your last night on earth. As long as that’s there, the format is irrelevant.

One of your duets was with drummer Bill Stewart, a long time companion of you. What makes playing with Bill so special?

We have a nice repartee that makes playing together really easy. We never talk about the music much. It just happens. He is always inspiring to play with.

At your albums Part of the Solution Problem and The Electric Bill you play the Fender Rhodes. I think you are one of the few musicians that can play jazz with an electric instrument without making too much noise. At certain times your music sounds like the narration of a fairytale. How do you experience playing the Fender Rhodes?

carrothers and winstone

Unfortunately I don’t play the Rhodes much anymore. It’s such a hassle to tour with and lug around that most guys don’t do it anymore. When I was young, I hauled a suitcase 88 around for many years. It was HUGE and heavy as hell. I’ve always loved the sound of a Rhodes because of its bell-like tone on top and the growly bottom, and I always loved the smushy feel of a Rhodes. It’s fun to play.

Talking of narration. At some of your records you really tell story’s, the history of the Civil War, the Armistice in 1918. How did you prepare these albums?

I never prepare recordings. I learn the tunes because I love them and then I copy them out for the other musicians and we play them. I try to never bring in any preconceived notions of what I want to “get” out of a recording session. Armistice 1918 was almost completely improvised. Folks hear that recording and they think I through-composed and planned a lot of it. I’m not that smart! I pick the people who I think have something to say about the music, people who I like to play with, and then I let them do their thing. Most of the CDs I’ve made are not the CD I thought we were going to make. They take on a life of their own in the studio and we all just go along for the ride. And then you accept what it turned out to be because that’s what it really is. I think many recordings made now feel like a doctoral thesis, where every T must be crossed and every i dotted. The studio has become a place where perfection must be achieved. I don’t look at it that way. It’s a one or two day slice of where you were at that moment. It’s a snapshot. The affection for the music and for each other is a lot more compelling, in my opinion. I almost never edit the music. It goes on the CD pretty much the way we played it, warts and all. If you can capture the vibe, the love, the moosh of the playing, chances are it will be something that people will want to listen to more than once.

In 2012 you played with singer Norma Winstone. Recently I interviewed her. She said: “ I am always inspired when I sing with musicians who love the music and are prepared to be a bit adventurous. I don’t know what I’ve learned from my younger colleagues except how to make music with them. It is a precious thing when you find musicians with whom you don’t have to discuss anything and playing together just works. I have been lucky in all my playing partners. “ You were one of these palying partners. How was it working with Norma?carrothers 5

Norma was great. Adventurous, open-minded, trusting. A real musician, not only a singer. It was very cool.

In 2013 you recorded your beautiful solo-album Love and Longing. Beneath you are a highly favored pianist you have a beautiful voice. How do you look back at (making) that album?

It was fun to do, very casual, unplanned. When Gerard said he wanted to release it, I was surprised. I’ve never thought I had a particularly good voice. I just did it for fun.

A few months ago I interviewed bassist Peter Ind. He stated: “To me the greatness in jazz lies in improvisation and from improvisation there developed the musical language that we recognize as jazz.” Do you agree with him?

I would describe it the way Duke did… “The sound of surprise”.

You play a lot in Europe, about 12 weeks a year. Do you think jazz in Europe develops a different direction than Jazz oversea?

Artistically, I think the scenes are converging pretty fast now. Of course there is still a lot more financial support for the arts in Europe, but that’s beginning to change too.

carrothers love and longingIs there jazz in the future? Jazz is the most recorded musicstyle by now, but do you think jazz will reach our youth?

I hope so, but who knows? Art forms come and go, since they are all a reflection of the times in which they are born. Once an art form no longer expresses the pathos and soul of a given time, it ceases to be relevant and dies.

Last question: which projects do you have in store for us?

I have a choral hymn cd coming out in mid-November entitled “Sunday Morning”. I’m writing a commission for trio, male and female vocalists, trombone, and a boy choir, for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. And I will be recording a CD with the Dave King Trio next year. The Armistice 1918 group will also be touring in Europe next year as part of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War.

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