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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.

AAJ: But you had that foundational knowledge from Clarence Acox.

CR: Yes, and I continued to learn that, but instead of being guided by some big idea of this is what I'm supposed to do in order to be a jazz musician, I was more guided by, "I really like listening to this recording, so I'm going to learn from it, because I feel drawn to it." And then letting myself to be drawn to jazz, or classical music, or pop music, or whatever else, equally.

AAJ: That's what's supposed to happen!

CR: I think so.

AAJ: Otherwise, it's like putting the music under glass, like a museum piece. The same thing happens in classical music, where many people view anything from the last hundred years as non music, ignoring brilliant work from the twentieth and twenty first centuries. People have this perception of what something is, and in the end, miss the point of what it is. How would you describe your musical upbringing?

CR: When I was little, I only listened to classical music, it was all I liked.

AAJ: Did you have a bass mentor then?

CR: I started playing bass in sixth grade. I started with the cello in fourth grade. I chose cello because my older brother had played the cello, and switched to bass, around that timeline for him. I really looked up to him, so I thought I wanted to play the cello when it came time to choose an instrument. When I got to middle school, I was very timid, I was so scared at the thought of auditioning for orchestra. I didn't want to audition on cello, I thought it would be better to just pick up a new instrument, so I could start at square one. By the next year I started doing jazz band, and continued in orchestra.

AAJ: Who did you study with in high school?

CR: In high school I studied with Doug Miller. I started with him the summer before high school, he was an amazing teacher. I learned so much from him.

AAJ: Did you have a bass mentor at the UW, when you were studying in that program?

CR: Yes, Luke Bergman was the bass guy there, and he is an amazing teacher, and also very different. I thought he was exactly what I needed at that time as well. I learned so many fundamentals and jazz specific things from Doug. Also things about being a supportive musician, what your bass role is, using your ears, so many things about what it is to be a bassist.

When I got to the UW, and started studying with Luke, things started opening up. I came in with this idea that I was going to be a jazz major, I have to work on my jazz vocabulary, and do that thing. I would ask him those questions and he would give me ways to work on that, like transcribing Coltrane, and we would do that. But then he also totally blew open my world with other things which were more like universal musical things, and also more non-genre specific bass things.

I remember one year, each quarter, he would give me a playlist from a different genre. One quarter it was really old blues music, that didn't have a bass in it, just a guitar and singing. He would say each week, "Pick one of these, and come up with your own bass part, something that really fits and contributes in some way." That was a very, very good exercise for me. We did that with a few other genres. I also later took lessons with Cuong Vu, and with Ted Poor.

AAJ: Talk about the experience of being a musician in New York City, and the projects you are currently involved in.

CR: I've done a lot of thinking about what I want to be doing there. Moving there is such a big adjustment in pretty much every way, not knowing many people, trying to meet tons of people, trying to find the people I actually connect with, the people I like to play with, what scene I want to be involved in. One thing that has been helpful for me to remember is that my time in Seattle, late college, and a couple of years after college, I was really happy here with what I was doing musically, because I was in a lot of long term projects that I felt really good about. Tyrant Lizard, The Sky is a Suitcase, a handful of others. Some of those are still continuing. Knowing that, and having a consistent group of people to really work on stuff with, that's really fulfilling to me, that's what I'm looking for in New York. I have found some of those people. I have a couple of projects that feel really great, the thing about that is, it's kind of slow, relationships over time, building those things and really just finding more of the right people who I really want to invest this time with.

AAJ: Are you finding musicians who are mostly from outside of New York like yourself, or are they native New Yorkers?

CR: Some of them are from Seattle, which is really funny. Some from New York, some from other places. One thing about moving there post college is, I don't have a built in community there, that's definitely a challenge.

AAJ: That might be good, though.

CR: Yes, I'm glad I'm not in school there, because it gives me the opportunity to actually pick who I'm going to be around, and who I'm going to pursue playing with. I feel like I'm at a point where when I meet someone I really feel connected to, I can know that, I can choose that.

AAJ: More of a musical choice, than one based on friendship?

CR: It's both, I think they go hand in hand, but when you're in school, you end up associating with the people you see all the time. That's cool, and that's the experience I had at the UW, why I feel so connected to my peers from that time. It's definitely hard to develop new relationships, new friendships, without that built in community. You just have to make yourself go out and do it, and that's definitely a challenge for me, but it's a good one, a positive one.
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