Bill Charlap Trio
I came of age in the 1960s, that radical era in which it was very difficult to make a mark in the music world unless you were in some way transgressive; personal imagination was viewed as a gateway to tremendous power. Today, largely through jazz education and conservative corporate sponsorship, American jazz has become steeped in certainties that are explainable, teachable and doable. Thus, the idea of sitting through another presentation of "the tradition" was about the last thing I wanted to do.
Perhaps I was so taken by Charlap's approach because he has effectively internalized the traditions of the music he plays. He is a walking message, even when he isn't playing. Of course, all jazz playing speaks to the individual player's experience, but, unfortunately today, the experience we too often hear is not of the streets, but of spending years in practice rooms at The New England Conservatory and the Berklee School of Music. It's worth repeating that 90% of being a great player is having something meaningful to say. Otherwise, good technique becomes an excuse for playing bad music faster.
I have generally regarded high art as something in which the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts, but in the case of Bill Charlap's trio I'll make an exception. The various parts of his music rarely transcended their sum but were so finely wrought and well conceived that they created a different kind of aesthetic experience. They were more like Schubert's miniature art songs and less like the sprawling emotive canvases of Beethoven or John Coltrane. Never the less, art it was. This quality was particularly evident when a standing ovation brought Charlap back for a solo encore. He closed out the evening by playing a lovely rendition of Hoagie Carmicheal's "Skylark."
Charlap's dedication to one narrow genre might not go down so well with a lot of young players right now. In the eclectic, post-modern era we live in today, many are falling right into line - like good little corporate soldiers - and absorbing many different styles that ultimately end up sounding scattered and unfocused. How many times have we heard the so-called "young lions"-sporting pork-pie hats and elegant suits-switch in the blink of an eye from playing like Coleman Hawkins to John Coltrane, from Louis Armstrong, to Freddie Hubbard? With so many of these players wildly changing styles and practically screaming on their instruments for gigs and recognition, I sometimes wonder if gentle souls like Bill Evans or Paul Desmond were 25-years-old again, how well would they fare in New York today? After hearing the civilized music of Bill Charlap, I think they might do just fine.
Photo Credit: Mark Ladenson