Bill Charlap Trio
Earshot Jazz Festival
October 29, 2002
Bill Charlap-Piano; Dennis Irwin-Bass; Kenny Washington-Drums Something To Say
If becoming a good player on an instrument is about acquiring physical skills, then the secret of becoming a good musician is having something to say. If the musical stand you take is original, or at least distinct, you've won 90% of the battle. The rest is merely in the execution. During his recent Earshot festival concert at Meydenbauer Center, Bill Charlap defined himself - through both musical message and keyboard skills - as an absolutely first-rate interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Born and raised in the theater district of Manhattan, where his parents were both prominent professional musicians, Charlap displayed an elegant New York persona that radiated an aura of having spent time in fashionable New York cafes. The kinds of cafes where, in a bygone era, one might have expected drop-in visits by the likes of Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter or Oscar Levant.
Unlike many of today's jazz players who regard a song as something to get through just so you can have something to jam on, Bill Charlap treats each tune as an objet d'art. Rather than lose the melody, he treats it with delicate respect; framing it by inserting intelligent, pre-arranged introductions, interludes and endings into each piece. As the trio played through standards like "The Best Thing For You" or "Blue Skies" and jazz tunes like "Israel," I began to really appreciate this group in ways that surprised me.
One thing that struck me, which I found quite engaging was that, just like the designers of those huge, exposed air ducts and funky brick walls seen in fashionable restaurants, Bill Charlap is not shy about making the framework of his craft visible, or more accurately, audible. In fact, just as in those chic restaurants, the exposed framework becomes a major part of the experience. Whereas a lot of jazz musicians might present an opaque, expressionless façade and never let an audience become privy to how they function, Charlap's trio pleases; partially, because there are no secrets kept from the audience. Not only was their repertory familiar but I always knew when the group was improvising and when it was reading through those wonderfully complex, arranged sections.
A perfect example of this was his arrangement of "Blue Skies." The piano and bass framed the melody with Bach-like counterpoint while the drums played little stop-and-start rhythms in the background. All of this busyness created a gentle confusion, which acted as a springboard into the improvising that followed. Similar pre-planned sections would also suddenly pop up in the middle of the improvised sections. Just as in classic big band arrangements from the swing era, these written out events were fun and interesting, and provided a musical function. They were analogous to the giant towers soaring above the Golden Gate Bridge that prop up its sagging cables. Or, to borrow a metaphor from my daughter's kindergarten teacher, Charlap's music is like pulling taffy, where the length of a jazz solo is stretched to its breaking point before being interrupted by one of his written-out interludes. I viewed these pre-conceived routines, not as cop-out, but as a major contribution to the music. One person at the concert remarked, "Just think of all the great stuff Charlap's fans would miss if he just sat there and faked everything each night." As in the classic Ahmad Jamal and Andre Previn recordings from the 1950s, this was about displaying music as fine craftsmanship rather than as a vehicle to bare one's inner soul.
As for the playing itself, I had difficulty deciding who the real star of this trio was - Charlap himself or drummer Kenny Washington. Washington is a master at playing with brushes; and, as the acoustics in the hall were pretty live, you could hear each little brush stroke, even on the faster tempos. Add to that the way he and Charlap were perfectly synchronized, and it made for quite a stunning experience.
I sense that Bill Charlap is, at heart, a classicist. There's no denying his tremendous piano technique and a seemingly inexhaustive supply of dazzling ideas. However, the emotional tone of his performance was muted. Instead of using the piano as a drum or vocal instrument to create a state of ecstasy (as Keith Jarrett might do), Charlap uses songs as a vehicle to play the piano. Which brings me to the second surprise of the evening, that being my extremely positive reaction to Charlap's concert give the fact that I simply have never been very interested in this kind of music.
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