Bill Carrothers’ jazz piano tour de force

Sam Lewin

A quick glimpse at pianist Bill Carrothers’ discography confirms his highly distinguished jazz pedigree. Carrothers has played with a veritable “who’s who” of jazz icons — such as Dave Douglas, Dewey Redman, Billy Higgins, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Konitz — and is, in fact, an icon himself.

Last Saturday, for example, Carrothers and his trio, with Bill Stewart on drums and Drew Gress on bass, played at the 2011 Monterey Jazz Festival in California. So last year, when the Lawrence jazz community learned that Carrothers was going to become Lawrence’s new jazz piano instructor, its reaction was one of awe and excitement, the general consensus being, “That’s so killing, man.”

Carrothers introduced himself to the Lawrence jazz program at a highly anticipated solo piano recital last Wednesday night, which was also the first jazz concert of the academic year. Jazz musicians, faculty and fans filtered into Harper Hall well before the concert started at 8 p.m., and disproportionately sat in the left side of the auditorium, in order to better see Carrothers’ hands.

Carrothers himself casually walked on stage about five minutes late, kicked off his shoes — which remained off for the duration of the concert — and ate a couple of Oreo cookies that he took out of his pocket.

After apologizing for his sweet tooth, he began what proved to be a tour de force of jazz piano mastery.

Carrothers began his recital with the Cole Porter tune “So in Love,” which introduced his lush and deep style of piano playing. “So in Love” began quietly, but Carrothers subtly added blues language and gradually began a slow groove in four, which foreshadowed some of the heavy swinging pieces he played later in the recital.

“So in Love” also illustrated the expressive and dynamic aspects of Carrothers’ piano playing; Carrrothers often played soft, quietly and out of time, but he contrasted such delicacy with loud, grooving and powerful playing.

The third tune of the recital showed Carrothers’ groove and swing influenced side. Carrothers immediately launched into a bop-like melody with a standard AABA form, and impressively soloed over his left hand’s bass accompaniment for a few choruses.

However, he gradually began to stray from the form and explored some really interesting musical territory. This kind of exploration characterized much of Carrothers’ improvisation, and perhaps it was made possible by the absence of other instruments.

But regardless of whether or not Carrothers plays more “in” when he’s playing with other musicians, his ability to use musical structures as guidelines of improvisation — rather than more rigid rules — is one of the more impressive features of his playing.

The end of Carrothers’ recital featured a diverse array of tunes, including the lesser-known Wayne Shorter composition “Water Babies,” and a few Carrothers originals such as “Peg,” which he wrote for his wife, and a beautiful march-like arrangement of the civil war song “Yellow Rose of Texas.” The highlight of the recital, however, was the last tune. Carrothers concluded with a dirty, grooving, and adrenaline-fueled arrangement of the “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which the first few rows of Harper Hall responded to by dancing in their seats. As Carrothers picked up his shoes and left the stage, the audience immediately called him back for an encore.

Carrothers’ recital exceeded its high expectations, and it will be exciting to have another dynamic player on Lawrence’s jazz faculty. Hopefully, this is first of many Carrothers performances at Lawrence.