If pianist Bill Carrothers hadn't found his way to music, he might have been a historian. Fortunately, Carrothers has found a unique way to combine both interests. Armistice 1918 (Sketch, 2004) was a remarkably broad-scoped concept piece that brought together his own thought-provoking compositions with imaginative reworkings of popular songs from the First World War. But that wasn't the first time Carrothers mined archival wartime music. The Blues and the Greys (Bridgeboy, 1997), the first release under his own name, put a distinctly personal slant on material from the American Civil War and established him as a fresh voice worth watching.
Despite widespread critical acclaim, Sketch's unfortunate dissolution caused Armistice 1918 to disappear all too quickly. The good news is that Philippe Ghielmetti, the man behind Sketch, is back with a new label, and its first release is Carrothers' latest, the solo piano Civil War Diaries. Recorded live in the studio in front of a small audience of invitees, Carrothers takes greater liberty with his source material than on The Blues and the Greys, extending it to create a powerful emotional statement about the moral ambiguities of war without uttering a single word.
All nine tracks can also be found on The Blues and the Greys, but in the true spirit of jazzarticulated with finesse in Carrothers' own liner notesthey have evolved considerably, and Carrothers' own growth as a pianist gives these new treatments even deeper emotional resonance. While the original version of "Tenting on the Old Campground is lyrical and elegant, here Carrothers turns it into a darker, more abstract piece that's disturbing rather than uplifting. Equally, "Weeping Sad and Lonely takes on a more brooding complexion. The familiar melody is there, but Carrothers turns it into something bleaker and more complex. Even though a more bittersweet and faithful reading appears two-thirds of the way through, there's a subtle undercurrent that keeps things unsettled and off-kilter.
Carrothers turns "The Yellow Rose of Texas into a blues that demonstrates his ability to combine roots in the jazz tradition with a wider harmonic outlook. Much as pianist/friend Marc Copland consistently finds ways to put a distinctly contemporary stamp on even the most overplayed of standards, Carrothers reinvents archival songs that are almost part of the collective subconscious into something wholly modern.
Throughout, the pianist's improvised extensions develop logicallythere's no grandstanding here, nor is there the feeling that he's just applying what he knows. Instead, every tunefrom the understated grandeur of "Bonnie Blue Flag to the slight dissonances of "Carry My Back to Old Virginia is filled with a sense of discovery, where Carrothers may be as surprised at where the songs take him as his audience. They say jazz is the sound of surprise, and Civil War Diaries is defined by the unexpected. And when comparing the American zeitgeist of 2005 to that of 1997, Carrothers' reprisal of the material proves that art truly reflects the times in which we live.
Note: Civil War Diaries is available in the US only through Bridgeboy Music.
Personnel: Bill Carrothers: piano.