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Carmen Rothwell: The Art of Intuition

Paul Rauch By

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I like it when it feels intuitive, but i think the intuition is based on experience, and the things that you've learned. —Carmen Rothwell
Seattle, a city synonymous with alternative rock, has long sustained a provincial jazz culture, without a signature sound, but with an openness to innovative, progressive invention. To outside jazz partisans, the city is known for phenomenal high school talent that usually flies the coop, heading east for conservatory training and to pursue professional ambitions.

Seattle's creative pulse is often driven by boomerang musicians like trumpeter Thomas Marriott and drummer Matt Jorgensen, who headed to New York, but eventually returned, bringing with them a level of creative commitment only attainable from such a journey. Along with peers like saxophonist Mark Taylor, they are now unwavering figures of the jazz mainstream here.

Bassist Carmen Rothwell has been a beneficiary of their experience, and paid her dues on the Seattle jazz scene while still a student at the University of Washington, studying under mercurial trumpeter, Cuong Vu. Her performance and recording experience includes projects with Vu, trailblazing guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and pianist/composer Wayne Horvitz. In 2014, she was named "Emerging Artist of the Year," by Earshot Jazz.

Rothwell is equally adept in applying extended techniques on her instrument, whether playing straight ahead jazz, or traversing the avant-garde, along the way developing an original and innovative approach recognizably her own. I had the good fortune of catching up with her during a recent visit to Seattle.

All About Jazz: Like many Seattle jazz musicians before you, you have moved to New York, and immersed yourself in the scene there. Your path is a little different than most, as you stayed in Seattle after high school to study at the University of Washington, as opposed to schools in New York. What was it about the program there that inspired that decision?

Carmen Rothwell: When I entered college, I wasn't sure I wanted to be a musician, I was pretty hesitant about it. I wasn't planning on going to school for music necessarily. But when I auditioned for UW, and started to connect with Cuong Vu, I decided to major in music. I still thought I might do something else as well, but I didn't know what that was. Over the course of time there, I realized this is what I wanted to do, what I needed to do. Cuong was a huge part of that change in my head, that this is something I can do, this is something I'm good at, it was something I kind of can't not do.

AAJ: Stylistically, where were you at coming out of Garfield? Was what Cuong Vu was doing eye opening for you, or were you already familiar?

CR: I had been curious about many different styles and genres since high school, but I really didn't know a lot. That program was mostly rooted in swing, and Clarence Acox is a wonderful teacher. Some of my friends, my peers at Garfield had other interests as well, so through them, I was interested in other directions. When I auditioned for UW, and then started to check out concerts that Cuong was doing more, as I was deciding to go to UW, I found it exciting.

AAJ: Was that his trio?

CR: Quartet. I remember going to a concert at The Chapel, and seeing what turned into Leaps of Faith (Origin, 2011), the album. I had never seriously checked out anything like that before, but I found it really compelling, and I was excited to be around those people.

AAJ: Can you identify a turning point that made you realize you were going to become a professional musician? Was there a defining moment when the floodgates started to open, or was it more of a gradual thing?

CR: It was over the course of college. My sophomore year I started being in contact with Cuong more in my classes, and that made a huge difference. All of his classes that he taught were just so eye opening. He just made it possible for me to open up my idea of what music even is, and how and where improvisation can exist in music, how I can relate to all these different concepts, jazz or whatever. Jazz is such a broad thing, we can define it for ourselves. There's a tradition of course. A lot of people have this perception of Cuong, that he's not into swing, because they see him as this avant-garde guy. But he can really play that music.

AAJ: I've seen him perform, for example, Duke Ellington's "Harlem," with the Seattle Symphony. He can play within the more traditional forms, and play them extremely well.

CR: He has that perspective, and also knows it's important, and ultimately, for me, it's more meaningful to not be so concerned with following a set of rules.

AAJ: Essentially, that's what attracts us to jazz.

CR: This has happened, throughout the history of the music. I felt like I learned that from him. Through recordings he would play in classes, jazz and non-jazz, getting down to what makes these pieces of music work, what is universal, and how you can take these pieces and put them together. It made it exciting for me, instead of thinking that if I'm going to be a jazz musician, I have to know this very specific language in and out, and I have to learn to play these really fast pieces, bebop.

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