Pianist Bill Charlap limited himself to Leonard Bernstein-penned tunes for his previous album, Somewhere (Blue Note, 2004). For the followup (or -on, one might say) he has chosen to concentrate exclusively on another giant of American music, George Gershwin, with undoubtedly fine results.
The group shrinks and swells, depending on the treatment Charlap aims to give the material. The bandleader is flanked only by his familiar duo of Washingtons, drummer Kenny and bassist Peter (no relation), on the effervescent opener, "Who Cares?", and the swift and succinct "Liza." He closes out the disc alone with a tender one-chorus rendition of "Soon." But tunes such as "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "Somebody Loves Me" merit a full-blown septet, with four very distinct horn players variously joining the core trio.
The trio pieces are not noticeably more streamlined, and on account of their comparatively abbreviated running times, they don't always allow for longer individual solos. Therefore at first it's a bit difficult to figure out exactly what Charlap was shooting for. But his reasoning gradually becomes apparent: a certain refinement of mood and structure is possible through omitting reeds and brass and by contrasting those arrangements with others on which they are included. Listening to the exquisite rarity "I Was So Young and You Were So Beautiful" after "'S Wonderful," the question is not why did Charlap leave the horns out?, but rather, how could he possibly have fit them in?
That isn't to suggest the augmented pieces suffer from anything close to ungainliness. Though "Liza" gives it a run for its money, the septet arrangement of "'S Wonderful" is as zippy as any track on The American Soul. Here the musicians pass the baton quickly and fluidly to one another: alto to trumpet to tenor to trombone to bass to piano and repeat, sometimes reversing the order, and speeding up a bit with each pass. This swinging "hot potato" track is full of quotesfor example, alto saxophonist Phil Woods' use of Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" as a springboard for his second go. "A Foggy Day," on the other hand, is relaxed and pillowy.
"Bess, You Is My Woman Now" features some outstanding work by alto saxophonist Phil Woods. His performance on this ballad is acutely sensual, making for a particularly memorable rendition of the frequently recorded standard. Woods is arguably the MVP of the discCharlap himself notwithstandingthough octogenarian Frank Wess contributes a poignant intense fragility to yet another frequently recorded standard, "How Long Has This Been Going On?". In terms of beauty as well as technical skill, it ought to qualify as the library recording of the song.
The American Soul may not shatter Charlap's reputation as a mainstream pianist, but if that makes this album characteristic of the typical mainstream jazz release, the genre is in very good shape indeed.
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Personnel: Bill Charlap (piano); Peter Washington (bass); Kenny Washington (drums); Nicholas Payton
(trumpet), Slide Hampton (trombone); Phil Woods (alto saxophone); Frank Wess (tenor