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Bill Charlap: Intellect And Emotion

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The intellect never outweighs the emotion and the emotion never outweighs the intellect.
—Bill Charlap
"I don't ever remember a time when I didn't play the piano," reflects pianist Bill Charlap, who has become one of the giants of his generation on his instrument of choice, as evidenced by the array of other great players with whom he has performed. With his deft and agile approach he can summon a fiery intensity on the most difficult pieces and play with dreamy subtlety on softer things, like when accompanying a singer—a specialty of his.

"There was never a time when music wasn't one of the most central important things in my life," he says. Charlap grew up in a very musical family that placed him on an inevitable career path. Music was going to be his calling "and I was lucky because I had a family that didn't say, 'We want you to be a doctor.' Some people struggle with that. I'm not saying that everything was a magic carpet and there weren't struggles. There were plenty. Growing up isn't easy for anybody. But I always knew. And you know, my life is still music."

His father was Moose Charlap, a Broadway composer whose credits include "Peter Pan." His mother, Sandy Stewart, is a singer who toured with Benny Goodman, and was a regular on The Perry Como Show in the 1950s. She earned a 1963 Grammy nomination for her recording of "My Coloring Book" in the Best Solo Vocal Performance, Female category. She has recorded two albums with her son,

"I'm influenced by just absolutely everything that I've ever heard and loved. It's not just pianists. Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington and Gil Evans and Johnny Mandel, all the great songwriters. My mother and father. Great musicians I've been fortunate to play with, like any Benny Carter and Clark Terry and Phil Woods and Gerry Mulligan and Barbra Streisand. And Renee Rosnes, my wife. We all influence each other. So it's all in there," says Charlap. "All of the music from loving Gregorian chant to John Coltrane playing 'Transition.' It's all coming from the most human place and a place that is in balance with the deepest intellect and the deepest emotion. That's what you hear in Charlie Parker's playing. The intellect never outweighs the emotion and the emotion never outweighs the intellect."

A huge part of that musical life is the trio he formed in 1997 with drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington which has been performing regularly ever since. This year the unit will mark 25 years together, toward the end of 2022. Very few groups have been able to say that. One might hearken back to the Modern Jazz Quartet for something like that. But even that quartet had personnel changes in the early years.

In 2021, the Bill Charlap Trio released Street of Dreams (Blue Note), a collection of some lesser known gems by some of the fine American writers, done with the class and elegance typical of these three superb musicians. It's striking, like all the trio's work, in how three minds can get one focus and create captivating moods.

"My trio has been playing together for a long time. We have so much music in our book," says the pianist about the album's conception that resulted in the group going into the studio in the spring of 2021. "We were driving down to Baltimore for an engagement at the Keystone Corner down there for a number of nights. And we were about to record right when we came back. And I said, 'Fellas, here's about 20 pieces I'm thinking of playing. I just want your votes. If I have three yeses, I'll put them in the 'yes' pile.' So sometimes it was yes-yes-no. Or no-yes-yes, or yes-yes-yes. And out of that, I tried to choose eight pieces that would be a good set of music, that would touch on various different things we do as a rhythm section and in terms of orchestration, and various different feelings, and moods and approaches to improvising.

"I was happy that it has a wide swath of major songwriters like Billy Strayhorn, Frank Loessor, and Burton Lane and Victor Young, as well as great composers who wrote purely instrumental pieces, like Kenny Burrell and Dave Brubeck We took two days in the studio at a leisurely pace and recorded it exactly in the order that the album is. Everything you have there, I think, is the first take. Maybe there's a second take on one of the pieces. We came in the next day and approached it again, maybe a slightly different tempo or something like that. But it was a lot like we do a set.

"It's just what we do as a group. And naturally, we want to tell a story that flows from piece to piece. The lyrics are very important. They tell the story. And the melodies—how they relate to the harmonies of the pieces which take you through different eras and different ways of writing this music That's the blueprints we use to say what we want to about the pieces."

Charlap does other gigs with other notable artists. But he is proud of what the trio accomplishes at each gig and each recording. "I'm happy with it just because I know that we did something that's honest. And I can hear how our chemistry has only gotten richer between the three of us. And what makes me happy is that I feel it's a very good snapshot of exactly where we were last May. I'm very happy with how it came out."

The trio, he says, is a family and there is tremendous pride and pleasure derived from that.

"We care about each other as people very much. But it's still growing. It's still a challenge. There's nothing that's by rote. Every time we play, it feels fresh. And we all continue to grow individually and as a group. So if at any point that wasn't happening, then it would be time to make a change. But there's no reason to make a change because the group keeps evolving. And evolving really from the inside. Not just tacking things on but from the core of who we are as musicians. So I still can't wait to get on the bandstand with Kenny Washington and Peter Washington. The chemistry is so wonderful, and natural. And it continues, like a very good marriage that you understand each other so well. And you want only the best for each other all the time."

Washington the bassist, says Charlap, "is just a magnificent musician. The whole jazz community recognizes that he's of the highest echelon of artists, and his understanding of the logic of the line that is rooted in the entire history of the music—Jimmy Blanton to Doug Watkins to Ron Carter, Percy Heath, Oscar Pettiford. They're all there in Peter's playing. And he is deeply original. The sound that he makes is so beautiful and muscular and also rich and eloquent."

Drummer Washington "is one of the grand masters of his instrument alive today. He's been a grand master ever since he was very young," says Charlap, noting "the depth of swing and depth of orchestration, and understanding and instinct of what's just right for the rhythm section. Both Kenny and Peter, their attitude is so intense. And the combination with each other is so rich ... It's kind of a magic carpet. But you hear the entire history of the music in their playing, as well as their deep individuality, which comes from standing on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us. It's the past, the present and the future all at the same time."

Of his past, Charlap looks fondly upon the surroundings that fostered his artistic side. "There were so many wonderful musicians in and out of my home and I didn't realize how important they were." Lyricists like Yip Harburg, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and Charles Strauss might be there at different times. and so many people. "I witnessed my father's great creativity. My mother's beautiful voice and interpretation. That was always there ... She's still singing like an angel. We've made some albums together. She's 84 years old. She's in fantastic shape, and she still can break your heart with her interpretation of a lyric. She has beautiful vocal command still."

His brother, who is a bassist, let him hear records of people from George Shearing to Weather Report. "And listening to him play was very inspiring to me." There were musicians his age he associated with and together they explored what was happening in jazz.

"I learned so much by ear when I was very young," he says. "I went to the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City and that was incredible. Because there was so much talent surrounding me. I was always trying to figure things out by ear and I had friends who were brilliant concert pianists, or gospel pianists. All kinds of music was going on there. Plus it was a New York City public high school. So it was black and white and straight and gay and Asian and Russian and Jewish and everything. Everybody was together. The way it should be.

"And you know, my life is still music. My wife is one of the greatest jazz pianists and composers in this music today. She's a giant. Think of the people that have wanted her and had her in their bands as the pianist of choice—Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, James Moody, J.J. Johnson, Ron Carter, Bobby Hutcherson. She's the top.

"Her creativity is pretty boundless. And we have a wonderful simpatico as a duo piano team. It really, really works. It always did. It's instant chemistry. You know, like Kenny and Peter. The chemistry with Renee is perfect. And we've we made a beautiful album. We made an album where we played with Tony Bennett on two pianos—album of Jerome Kern's music, among other things. (The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern ) The trio was on there also. There's no clutter in the way that Renee and I approach two pianos. There's no competing. It's simply lifting the music."

Charlap also has a special knack for uplifting singers, giving just the right support and supplying harmonies that can emphasize the beauty of the lyric, cushion it with intriguing voicings and harmonies. Even with someone as adventurous as Kurt Elling. "It is a different approach when you play with anybody. It's not just a singer, of course. You know, I've played with so many. Ethel Ennis, Ernie Andrews, Freddy Cole, Carol Sloane, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett. They're all different. Anytime you play with somebody, you're embracing their aesthetic. But a singer is a very special thing. Recently, there's a wonderful connection between me and Dee Dee Bridgewater. We've been playing some duets together. It's totally different than something that I would do with somebody else. It's their personality."

He continues, "With a singer, you have the lyrics, the way they approached the lyrics. The song itself. All of these different things are paramount. They're all there. A real partner, beyond an accompanist, is like a painter who's weaving the carpet and creating the landscape. It's like how an artist uses color. Color has weight, and harmony has weight, and density has weight. And there are all different kinds of reds, and blues.

"If you look at Joaquín Sorolla and John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn and great painters, that's what you're doing with a singer. You're using all the color. It's personal, because we're improvising musicians. So we're finding a way to communicate all the time. We listen to each other. But it's not different. It's very different and it's not different. You listen. The greatest tool you have is your ears. And your heart."

Charlap's outstanding career started building before he became known as an accompanist. His first major gig was with Mulligan for a number of years then Woods. "Those things certainly were lucky breaks in terms of opening doors," he says. His career "just started to build slowly... Then getting my own groups and trying to get my conception out there. Not out there in a business sense, just out of my body and my psyche to see what was there. Of course, this is how I paid the rent. So luckily, people wanted to hear what we were doing."

He's been in the top echelon for years now, but like all others, things slowed because of COVID. The pianist has been artistic director at 92nd Street Y's Jazz in July concert series in New York City for 17 years. They hoped to do six shows last summer. Only two—one with Dianne Reeves and one with Elling—were held. In 2020, he had 168 performances cut down to 16. Charlap did some live stream shows as well.

"It was like doing live television in the '50s, or something like that. Because the camera goes on, and you get one chance to go through it. Although it's isolating. I missed the audience so much, because communicating one-to-one, just looking in the eyes of somebody who you're speaking to with music is so important to me. But sometimes embracing whatever you're feeling can help other people too. And I think that it was a very good discipline to have those opportunities to make those live streams. Because, as I said, it was like doing live television."

Charlap is also director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He coached bands throughout COVID in a 1,000-seat hall. "We had everybody 12 feet apart with partitions and masks and a stage crew that was disinfecting everything and we pretty much were able to go on. I was 20 rows back with a microphone and was able to speak to the students. I had another piano stage left where I could demonstrate certain things. That was a lifeline for everybody," he says.

Every encounter, even if difficult times, is still an opportunity to learn. He described two nights of duets he did last year at the Village Vanguard with the great bassist Ron Carter.

"There's only one Ron Carter. Watching his poise and his focus. That's very inspiring. After that, I went to play a solo concert in Pennsylvania. I told him when I saw him a few weeks later, 'Maestro, I couldn't shake you. You would open so many doors for me.' The music (at Birdland) was so vital and surprising. It opened so many doors that I was almost stopped playing with you in a way.' And I'm happy for things like that. We can be open to some of that. Everybody has a different time feel. People who play this music, everyone plays time differently, rhythm differently. As we say, rhythm is our business. It's everything that we do. There's all different ways of swinging, and all different ways of approaching the rhythm. And when I've worked with great musicians, it changes my concept every time and it enriches what's central."

Looking ahead as live music returns, Charlap says, with a sense of satisfaction and resolve, "A world of music is ahead. I'm excited about today and tomorrow."

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