It has been written that if pianist Bill Carrothers hadn't found his way to music, he'd have likely become a historian, something that is clear from an earlier record, The Blues and the Greys , and now even more so with his new release, Armistice 1918 , an ambitious two-CD set which, over the course of two hours, presents a look at the First World War in a deeply personal way, telling the story of a man and woman who love each other, but are ultimately separated by it. Intensely intimate, Carrothers manages to convey the conflicting emotions in a way that is evocative without being blatant.
Disc one opens with four tunes that signify the happiness and prosperity that pervaded most of the world immediately prior to the war. "Hello Ma Baby," "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "Cuddle Up a Little Closer," sung by Carrothers' wife Peg, are joyous, conveying the couple's sense of hope. Carrothers plays these tunes fairly straight and to the point, with only subtle reharmonization to foreshadow the more troubled times ahead. The rest of the disc details the early part of the war and, while there is a certain sense of foreboding, avoids the true despair to come. Mining a wealth of songs from the era, Carrothers and his ensemble, which includes bassist Drew Gress, drummer Bill Stewart and cellist Matt Turner in particularly dominant roles, create an ever-increasing sense of unease.
Disc two deals with the war's more direct consequences, with emotions ranging from fear and foreboding to chaos, disillusionment, horror and, ultimately, loss, as the man becomes a casualty of war. The second disc, consisting mainly of Carrothers compositions, is particularly remarkable in the way that it conveys these emotions yet manages to avoid the obvious. "Evening Stand-To" vividly conveys the calm before the storm, and the free and chaotic "Trench Raid" conjures an image of battle without resorting to melodrama. Also notable is the way Carrothers seems to blend in references to songs that have managed to become part of the cultural subconscious, familiar without necessarily being known. It is these references that make the disc all the more effective, as they create a false sense of comfort and safety in a far more disturbing place. Ending with the words "There'd be no war today, if mothers all would say, 'I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier,'" and the distant chiming of church bells to signify the arrival of peace, the work ends on an ambiguous note.
The musicians' performances are secondary to the cinematic scope of the cycle. That they are improvisers of the highest calibre and with distinct personalities is a given, but Carrothers' work insists more that they surrender completely to the music and concern themselves less with conveying their own capabilities than emotional demands of the work. Following '03's compelling Ghost Ships , Armistice 1918 is a career-defining work from a pianist whose every step is worth watching.
Track Listing: Disc One: There's a Long Long Trail a Winding; Hello Ma Baby; Let Me Call You Sweetheart; Cuddle Up a Little Closer; Say Au Revoir; A Call to Arms - On Moonlight Bay; America, I Love You; I'm Always Chasing Rainbows; And the Band Played On; Christmas 1914 - Silent Night; There's A Long Long Trail a Winding; I'm Afraid to Come Home in the Dark; Till We Meet Again Disc Two: Till We Meet Again; Roses of Picardy; Evening Stand-To; Trench Raid; The Leaning Virgin of Albert; Caissons; Rum Ration; No-Man's Land; Funk Hole; Birds on the Wire; It's a Long Way to Tipperary; The Rose of No-Man's Land; A Rumour of Peace; The Wait; Keep the Home Fires Burning; I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier; Armistice Day
Personnel: Bill Carrothers (piano), Peg Carrothers (voice), Matt Turner (cello), Drew Gress (double-bass), Bill Stewart (drums), Jay Epstein (percussion, sound effects), Mark Henderson (bass clarinet) The Knob Creek Choir: Bill Carrothers, Bill Carrothers Sr., G?rard de Haro, Jay Epstein, Phillippe Ghielmetti, Drew Gress, Ted Holsten, Bill Stewart, Matt Turner, Steve Wiese, Davis Wilson