Early in his career, Bill Carrothers earned a decent living playing quality music in the jazz mecca of New York City for five years, but didn’t like the life he was building for himself and his family and decamped for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That aspect of his biography is especially significant context for Family Life, a solo piano record suffused with a mixture of affection and genuflection toward his domesticity in the northern climes.
In many respects, Family Life is a sequel to Excelsior, a solo Carrothers piano record from 2011 reflecting on his boyhood in Minnesota. Because a tender, evocative soulfulness pervades many of his compositions, the song titles are especially helpful on both discs with orienting the imagery. Consider a four-song sequence on Family Life, where you understand the sparkle of the hard single notes emphasized amid the slow phrases on “Northern Lights,” the subtle drift between contentment and ennui on “Snowbound,” the joyfully slippery turns of phrase propelling “On the Sled” and the ominous jut-and-hover effect on “Schizophrenic Weather.”
Elsewhere on the disc are obvious odes to Carrothers’ wife, Peg, their children and their parents, and even the family dog. The pianist keeps varying and shading the mood: “Bud and Bunny” (the nicknames of his children) has a melody of nursery-rhyme simplicity that decelerates into something of a lullaby, while “When We’re Old” is a disquieting walk into the sunset and “Scarborough Fair/Peg” intermingles the folk tune made famous by Simon & Garfunkel with a song for his wife that has the formal sweetness of chamber music.
A record this blatantly intimate is at the mercy of the execution. Carrothers pulls it off because he is a romantic who nevertheless understands that love is about wry humor and positive persistence as well as grand passions and humbling gratitude. And yes, all of that really does come through in the way he lays his hands on the ivories. Like an older pianist from a much different culture, the South African Abdullah Ibrahim, Carrothers’ touch is pacific without becoming passive. Getting away from the bustle has served him, his family and his listeners well.