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Bill Charlap Trio at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts

Dan Bilawsky By

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Bill Charlap Trio
Tilles Center for the Performing Arts
Jazz on Stage with Matt Wilson
Brookville, NY
November 8, 2015

To witness pianist Bill Charlap in action is to receive an education, so who better than the newly-appointed Director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University to help kick off a new performance and education initiative at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts?

While Jazz has always been part of the programming at this arts venue on Long Island University's CW Post campus, with everybody from John Pizzarelli to Tierney Sutton to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis appearing there in recent times, this concert—the first in a three-concert series curated by drummer, educator, force of positivity, and all-around jazz statesman Matt Wilson—marked a giant step forward in a new direction in terms of presentation. The maiden voyage of Jazz on Stage with Matt Wilson, true to its name, literally placed the audience at small tables or rows of seats right on the stage, bringing the intimate feel and ambience of a two hundred seat club into a space that can actually house more than ten times that many people. It was just one of several audience-friendly formatting touches—a pre-performance discussion between Charlap and Wilson, a generous ninety-minute set length, a chance to say hello to Charlap on the way out—that took this a step or two beyond your typical jazz club experience.

Charlap was still fresh as can be when it came time for that pre-concert talk, despite having spent the morning sharing his knowledge with music students in a masterclass setting. A wide variety of topics were addressed in conversation—everything from the pianist's musical bloodline to his time spent with the late Phil Woods to his work with his longstanding trio—and priceless anecdotes and quotes were dispensed, illustrating Charlap's encyclopedic knowledge of the music and the men and women who've made it. The talk alone was worth the price of admission.

The same level of wit and intelligence that came through in conversation was also on display during the concert itself, as Charlap was quick to explain the origin story behind a song, mention the writing partnerships that birthed the music, or rattle off the lyrics to a given piece. The show opened with "I'll Remember April," a performance that found Charlap mixing firm thoughts with frilly rejoinders while drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington kept things swinging. Next came Gerry Mulligan's "Rocker," an episode in up swing that would come to seem slow compared to some of the burners that appeared later in the set. Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" followed, as fanciful thoughts met with mid-tempo movement. Scampering runs came and went, the music moved with a bit more bounce than usual, and some chiming upper register chords helped to usher out this marvel of musicality.

Charlap continued to blend roles as the show rolled on, serving as artist, entertainer, and historian all at once. He took the time to share lyrics with the audience after a lively "Who Cares?," noting how relevant the words still are in today's world; he shared the history behind "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?," explaining how Michel Legrand unintentionally altered the Alan and Marilyn Bergman title lyric and instantly conjured the entire song, bridge and all, out of thin air; and he referenced the work of stride piano legend Willie "The Lion" Smith—sans derby hat and cigar—by tapping into his spirit during "Morning Air."

If the concert would've concluded at that point, to borrow a Passover phrase, it would've been enough. But the Bill Charlap Trio had more gifts to give. There was a run through "Put On A Happy Face" that found Charlap and Kenny Washington trading solos, a take on "Glitter And Be Gay" with an elegant outro, an impossibly fast "The Way You Look Tonight" that gave both Washingtons a chance to shine, and a show-ending double dose of music from West Side Story—an emotionally-weighted "Somewhere" and a version of "Cool" that lived up to its name. After a standing ovation and calls for more, Charlap returned and spoke earnestly about his friend, the late Mickey Leonard. The encores—heartfelt performances of Leonard's "I'm All Smiles" and "Like Someone In Love"—were simply magical, as Charlap's taste and touch were evident in his every gesture.

Before the show began, when Charlap was sharing his thoughts with the audience, he remarked that "you can't invent chemistry." He's right. It's either there or it isn't, and with this group, it's always there. This was a beautiful beginning to a series that fills a need both on the performance and educational ends of the spectrum. Here's to hoping that it continues long into the future.

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