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Bill Carrothers: Content in his Corner of the Jazz World

R.J. DeLuke By

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For me it's not a question of pick and choose. For me, it what makes me feel good and what I was put here to do. I'm convinced of that. I guess it's true what they say about artists, it's ultimately a very selfish thing.
Pianist Bill Carrothers is a realist.

Don't look for him to pine away for the "good old days" in jazz. Those are days he never saw anyway. Only 34, he grew up outside Minneapolis, Minn., with rock music and the period that punished us with Disco. Don't expect him to foretell the next great wave of jazz resurgence because, in fact, Carrothers doesn't believe it's going to happen. Jazz, like everything else, he will tell you, has a beginning, middle and an end.

Agree with him or not, he's comfortable with it. He's content to create art and be happy in his corner of the world and in his time. That neighborhood doesn't include the buzz of the city, the parade of taxicabs, the serenade of traffic or the siren song of fast-paced nightlife. It includes mountains and trees and snow. Lots of snow.

If it's sounding like Carrothers eschews the traditions or sanctity of jazz music, he doesn't. He's just different. He loves America, but finds more work in Europe and feels the attitude there is better about the music. (An opinion shared by many). He's also likes when jazz is passed down aurally, by listening to the music and the people, and not by sitting in a classroom, going through lessons and exercises. (At North Texas State University, renowned for its jazz program, "I got decent grades. I did OK, but I couldn't get out of there fast enough," he said, explaining his departure after just one year).

Carrothers is an artist, to be sure. He has vision and despite his stance that jazz music is never going to get any great popularity, he's committed to it, "because I love it. I can't help it. For me it's not a question of pick and choose. For me, it what makes me feel good and what I was put here to do."

"I guess it's true what they say about artists, it's ultimately a very selfish thing. You do it because it makes you feel good. And it beats heroin," he said, chuckling. "It's easier on your body than heroin and it makes you feel just as good. If I can go through my life and maybe make some other people feel good along the way, and make myself feel good, and maybe I don't change the world. And maybe I'm not instrumental in the renaissance and resurgence of jazz. But maybe I just change a little corner of the world. That's enough for me."

Carrothers has played with the likes of Billy Higgins, Gary Peacock, James Moody, Curtis Fuller, Dewey Redman, Buddy DeFranco and others, but has been doing his own projects in recent years, including music tied to American history, and even electric music. His latest CD Duets with Bill Stewart just came out in the U.S. (It was recorded a while ago and released in Europe last year). As the title suggests, it's just the pianist with the well-regarded drummer. "Bill and I like to converse. The whole record is really just a series of conversations," Carrothers said.

Some tunes, like "Vito's Dream World" are somber and mysterious. "A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square," is slow and reflective. "Taking a Chance On Love" has Bill Evans-like cool and harmonic devices over Stewart's soft, yet thoughtful polyrhythms. "Death of a Cigarette" is a slow blues with a behind-the-beat phrasing that has more mystery in it than BB King. It's not a swing session, but conversations that cover a variety of topics. It was released in France in 1999 on Birdology, It sold well in France and won Diapason d'Orde l'année (2000) award, as well as the Schallplatten Preis award in Germany. Throughout he shows a deft touch and strong sound, and the interplay with Stewart's shifting, subtle and adventurous rhythms is outstanding. They're interesting conversations.

The relationship with Stewart goes back over several years, to a group called A Band in All Hope that produced a CD of the same name. "We did some gigs. And we toured in the Midwest a little bit," he said. "That record's done really well over the years. That's the Bridge Boy release. That's just one of my own we just screwed around with. The other record, Duets, is kind of the next step."

His next project Electric Bill , featuring electric instruments and some different musical approaches, was to be released in February in France, and perhaps in the United States toward the end of the year. Then it's off on another project linked to America's history. So for this Excelsior, Minn., lad, things are going OK.

He tried the New York City scene and it didn't work out for him. So now he's now tucked away in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and that's where life is good, for now. "If it doesn't snow, I don't trust it," he said, at least half jokingly. "Up here in the UP we get 300 inches of it, annually." It's a long way from cities where the action might be, but who cares? Carrothers is going to lead his own life at his own pace and be in control as much as possible.

Is that suicide in the push-push-push, promote-promote-promote world of the music industry? Only if you let it. Carrothers isn't about to let that happen, because he's at peace with the reality of it all. He's not going to try and change things he can't, and that, ultimately, is healthy.

"I live up here in the UP with my wife, two cats and a dog and a baby on the way, and it's really, really cheap. I mean, it's so reasonable to live here that I don't have to care, the way I used to have to care," he said with certainty. "Of course, I want my music to succeed and that would bring me a great deal of joy. But, I've just been so frustrated over the years. My success now has been in Europe. And I tour over there several times a year. That, along with some computer work, and some picture framing that my wife and I do — mostly my wife — that's how we make ends meet.

"Making a career? I don't think one exists. If it does exist, it's like winning the lottery. It's like being the millionth customer that crosses the George Washington Bridge gets to shake hands with the governor. It's random. I don't think there's any pattern to it. I spent a long time trying to figure that pattern out and I came to the conclusion there is no pattern. One guy gets picked and gets to tour the world for five years and be famous, and another guy doesn't. And it has very little to do with how you play or what you look like or anything else. It's really pretty random. One guy gets the nod and another guy doesn't. I got really tired of trying to make some sense of that. So I'm trying now to put myself in a position where I can make the music I want to make and I don't have to answer that question anymore, because I don't have an answer for it."

Simple philosophy. So he steps out of the rate race and goes on. The rural life comes naturally anyway. Carrothers has always been a small-town boy, not cut out to be a city slicker. Growing up near Minneapolis was fine because the city itself had its share of jazz talent, albeit few clubs to play in. "I met a lot of great players, but eventually it's not a place you can really stay and make a go of it from a financial standpoint. You can make a go of it musically," he said.

Some musicians from large cities say they thrived on being able to hear a variety of musical styles and influences. Carrothers' take on that issue is the opposite. But again, it works for him.

"I thought it was a little nicer to grow up in a smaller place like that, than say, if I'd grown up in New York City. Because in New York City, you get so many influences as a musician. Maybe you're a little narrower in what you know, if you come from a small town, but what you know, you really know," he said. "Maybe you're only red, but you're really red, as opposed to New York. You hear a lot of saxophone players who grew up in New York or on the East Coast, places where they have tons of influences, hearing everybody all the time. You end up with all the colors mixed together. And what do you get when you do that? Brown. It all kind of comes out somewhat the same. In other words, it's not always great to have a million influences. Sometimes it's great to have one really good one. I think in a smaller town, you can be allowed to develop more organically along your own lines without having all that history heaped on you, where you have to sound like everybody. So that was what I found beneficial about Minneapolis. A great place to grow as a musician, undisturbed."

As a child in rural Minnesota, Carrothers wasn't exactly drawn to the piano, he admits. "I hated the piano. My mom made me play. She was determined that all her children would at least have a working knowledge of the piano. I don't know why she felt that way, particularly. I think she regrets it now," he chuckles, "wishes I'd become a doctor or something. She used to set the oven timer for a half-hour and I'd have to just sit there, even if I didn't play, I had to just sit there and stare at the keys and I just hated it. I wanted to play baseball."

But he stuck with it and, thanks to a local jazz pianist who began teaching him, Carrothers progressed. It was easy because of the approach the teacher took, which wasn't all scales and exercises. "It was all passed on very much like a tribe. No booklets and workbooks and shit like that. It was all sitting down and listening to records, playing along with them, or turning the stereo off and playing duets. He played some soprano saxophone. It worked. It's a nice way to learn that way."

Carrothers parents were musical. His father played records like Dixieland music and Gerry Mulligan and popular old jazz vocalists. His mother played some piano and used to sing the old standards around the house. So even though rock music was what was heard on the radio in the 1970s and 1980s, the sounds from home were jazz and that's where he gravitated. Peterson started telling him what records to get, like Bill Evans, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, "which would be an all-time desert island disc for me. It's just perfect interplay between the three guys. It's no accident that Bobby picked that one. It's all right here. He hipped me to some Art Farmer. And he hipped me to Moon Germs. I love that record. Joe Farrell. Killer record. Herbie Hancock plays his ass off on that record. It probably affected some of the electric stuff I just did last year, so that was one of the first ones he hipped me to."

And then there was Miles.
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