New York Times (USA)
October 25, 2004
- Ben Ratliff
All Music Guide
The pianist Bill Carrothers had a false start in the New York jazz scene in the late 1980's and early 90's, and retreated young to live and work in the upper peninsula of Michigan. There he makes records and, apparently, studies history. For his new album, "Armistice 1918" (Sketch Music), he studied the music of World War I and fashioned a two-disc narrative about prewar optimism, life on the front, trench warfare and the destruction of ideals and families. It is an ambitious work of repertory and imagination.
The trio at the album's core is Mr. Carrothers, with the bassist Drew Gress and the drummer Bill Stewart, who together explore a series of moods, including an orderly free jazz. The songs include "Hello Ma Baby" and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," as well as Mr. Carrothers's own suggestive sketches of wartime life. But he plays solo piano for tracks like "Roses of Picardy," meditative, improvisational and flecked with dissonance.
His wife, Peg, who has a gentle, strong theater voice, sings familiar songs of the time, and interacts with the music in other ways as well. In the version of "On Moonlight Bay," Ms. Carrothers sings the melody wordlessly over the band's monotone march.
Critic's Choice - 2004
Carrothers' two disc tone poem to WW1, inspired by the work of Great War poets and partially funded by a war museum in the Somme region of France, is by turns jubilant and haunting. Carefully researched and thoughtfully constructed, it evokes a depth of feeling and reflection worthy of the event that inspired it.
The Guardian (UK)
John L. Walters
September 10, 2004
No man's land
A jazz suite inspired by the first world war sounds like impossible territory. But Bill Carrothers has triumphed.
Armistice 1918 (Sketch, ?22.99) by Bill Carrothers, is a poetic story of love and separation, told partly through the songs of that time. At first glance, the first world war seems an unpromising subject for an extended jazz suite: the era seems too distant from the angular and elastic rhythms of the 21st-century piano trio. Yet the subject matter is still close, particularly for those of us whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought in the first world war, with diaries and souvenirs and family photos to keep their young faces fresh in our memories. And if it is true, as Carrothers claims, that "the 20th century was officially born" when the Armistice was signed in November 1918, we still have another 14 years to run of this murderous century.
There are a number of well established musical motifs for the first world war: jolly songs like Pack Up Your Troubles; lonely harmonicas; military brass and marching drums. Soundtrack composers are often called upon to deliver both pathos and bombast. Orlando Gough's music for Killing Fields, the Great War episode of the BBC series People's Century, and for the first world war series shown last year on Channel 4, used both chugging minimalism and icy modernism to imply the inner workings of the war machine. Peter Weir's Gallipoli made memorable use of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings; Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory used the skull-rattling snare drums of Gerald Fried's score to focused effect; while Joan Littlewood used popular songs of the era in ironic juxtaposition in her ground-breaking Oh What a Lovely War!, brilliantly revived at the Roundhouse several years ago.
Carrothers, however, is a thoughtful jazz pianist working with a small group - no orchestral forces, harmonicas, documentary sound files or theatrical alienation for him. Instead, he has crafted an intelligent suite: songs from the era; original compositions; group improvisations; and a version of Silent Night to represent the famous temporary, unofficial truce of Christmas Day, 1914. Where sung, the songs are performed by a small male voice choir, or by Carrothers' wife Peg. But the dominant sound is that of solo piano or piano trio, with drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Drew Gress, and Carrothers makes clever use of additional instrumental colours: cellist Matt Turner, percussionist Jay Epstein and Mark Henderson on contrabass clarinet, plus Peg's haunting, pure tones, often deployed in direct contrast to the warm timbres of the rhythm section.
At first, I didn't get it: Hello Ma Baby seemed annoying and mannered; the waltz-time rhythms of Let Me Call You Sweetheart felt arch and unmusical. It wasn't until I got to the second CD that I began to understand the scope of Bill Carrothers ambitions. This disc opens with Peg's rendition of Till We Meet Again, accompanied by tiny, improvised percussion sounds, and moves into a solo piano version of Roses of Picardy. The mood darkens for a sequence of ensemble pieces, with programmatic titles such as Evening Stand-To and No-Man's Land, before broadening into a reharmonised version of It's a Long Way to Tipperary. This rocks along with just the right blend of grit and optimism.
Carrothers' research has unearthed some of the most unlikely jazz cover versions you will find, including I'm Afraid to Come Home in the Dark, Keep the Home Fires Burning, and Cuddle Up a Little Closer. Some treatments don't gel, but in general, the musicality of his interpretations draws attention to the quality of these old tunes by stripping away the sentimental accompaniment. The two-hour suite ends with a devastating version of Novello and Ford's I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier set in two different key signatures. Sung simply by Peg Carrothers, it's as moving an anti-conflict statement as any this past century: "Let nations arbitrate their future troubles/ It's time to lay the sword and gun away/There'd be no war today/if mothers all would say/I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier."
The Irish Times
- Ray Comiskey
BILL CARROTHERS Armistice 1918 Sketch *****
As successful as it is unlikely, pianist Bill Carrothers' jazz suite inspired by the first World War is an evocation of the time partly through its songs and partly through his own compositions and group improvisations. It's many things: beautiful, sombre, wry, satirical and compassionate, a powerful anti-war statement and a tribute to the suffering and losses endured by combatants and loved ones, suffused with their yearnings. Amazingly, Carrothers achieves this with simple resources: a trio of himself, Drew Gress (bass) and Bill Stewart (drums), with permutations of Matt Turner (cello), Mark Henderson (contrabass clarinet), Jay Epstein (percussion), the unadorned singing of Peg Carrothers, and a touch of ensemble vocals.
The first CD of this double set takes an irony-laden journey through the era's songs, turning material like There's a Long Long Trail a-Winding and I'm Always Chasing Rainbows into inspirational jazz. The second uses less of this material; there are programme pieces by Carrothers directly evoking the war, combining the written and the improvised, their starkness contrasting the war experiences with the simple aspirations of the songs. As a suite it's very moving, imaginative, resonant with layered emotions - and one of the best surprises of the year.
Reviewed by John Kelman
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, Civil War Diaries, 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 re-harmonization to foreshadow the more troubled times ahead. The rest of the disk 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 disk, 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 disk 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.
Reviewed by Chris May
As we approach the hundredth anniversary of the start of "the war to end all wars," international conflict blights the planet like never before, and unilateral might-is-right aggression is increasingly replacing diplomacy and consensus. Bad karma rules and history sometimes seems, like the poet said, to be "one fucking thing after another."
So Bill Carrothers' Armistice 1918-a deeply affecting creative jazz suite about the horror and waste of the First World War, and by extension any war, performed by American musicians for a French label-is timely on two counts. Aside from being a musical masterpiece, the suite also reminds us that liberal, humanistic voices continue to be heard in the US, even if they have been marginalised by the neo-conservatives, and other reptiles, who have hijacked so much of the media in that country.
Already, deservedly, well-covered on AAJ-you can even converse directly with Carrothers himself on a Catching Up With... strand on the Bulletin Board-Armistice 1918, briefly and broadly, is a two-hour/two-CD work in three sections. The first disc, based entirely on popular songs from round about 1914-1918, covers the period of relatively carefee innocence immediately before the outbreak of hostilities, and the loss of that innocence during the first months of the war. The second disc, with most of the material composed by Carrothers, deals with everyday life and death in the trenches.
Most of the music is instrumental, performed by a piano trio, sparingly but tellingly augmented by cello, contrabass clarinet, and percussion. But eight of the thirty tracks feature vocals by Peg Carrothers, and these are important beyond their number. Her performances of "Keep The Home Fires Burning," "And The Band Played On," and other period pieces are hugely effective in conjuring up the era, while her beautiful, seemingly unschooled voice-straightforward and natural in delivery, pure in tone and texture, crystal clear and pitch perfect-of itself suggests the eternal human qualities of decency, love and compassion, the antitheses of war. Her "America, I Love You" has an especial resonance today. Ms. Carrothers closes the penultimate track, very movingly, with the lyrics: "...There'd be no war today/If mothers all would say/I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier."
Understated, reflective and at times almost unbearably poignant, Armistice 1918 isn't a feel-good album. But it is, extra-musically, a morale-boosting and important one, and, musically, a sui generis jazz set.
Andrew Hamilton (UK)
Pianist Bill Carrothers' previous release, also on Sketch, was the enigmatic, oblique Ghost Ships. But Armistice 1918 appears even stranger, with a programme of songs from World War I including "It's A Long Way To Tipperary", "Keep The Home Fires Burning" and "The Band Played On". But don't expect an exercise in antediluvian nostalgia: "I'm trying to tell a story of that process, from the relative innocence of 1914 to the wasteland of November 11, 1918," Carrothers explains, "to conjure up the ghosts and stories of that time and encourage them to speak". The pianist is one of the most original contemporary interpreters of the standard repertoire: "I make sure I know the lyrics of each tune I play. You have to figure out what each tune wants". Yet this is another way for Carrothers to go his own way, paying no regard to fashion. The group realising his interpretations and originals includes partner Peg Carrothers - whose small, attractive voice, it seems to me, is often required to sing higher than its natural range - plus Downtown luminaries Matt Turner on cello, Drew Gress on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. I don't know if jazz is the medium for such a project, but no other jazz musician could bring it off so eloquently - and you never heard "It's A Long Way To Tipperary" played like this.