After years of sideman work and releases on independent labels, pianist Bill Charlap has "made it," issuing his Blue Note Records debut, Written In the Stars, and playing a week at the Village Vanguard with his superb trio. Along with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, Charlap sticks to a simple format: all standards, all the time. At a time when young jazz artists are creating bold new music in large quantities, Charlap’s bop classicism would seem to put him in the "purist" or traditionalist camp. Fair enough, but this is a purism that works. While it’s certainly old school, there’s nothing formulaic about Charlap’s approach. Even many of the tunes are rarities: Harold Arlen’s "The Man That Got Away," Cole Porter’s "Where Have You Been," Gershwin’s "Lorelei." And Charlap’s magic touch, even with songbook staples like "The Lady Is a Tramp," elevates him far above the norm. The trio opens with a solid runthrough of Horace Silver’s "Ecaroh," then has its way with Porter’s "In the Still of the Night," making the A sections float portentously and breaking into furious, up-tempo swing on the Bs. "The Man That Got Away" and "Where Have You Been" ripple with exquisite dynamic control and a bone-deep sense of swing. A deliciously slow and smoky "One For My Baby" is sandwiched between the two show-stoppers, "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Slow Boat to China," both of which explode with out-of-left-field modulations, tempo changes, full stops, and tightly woven ensemble passages. Charlap spreads solo room around generously, using both Washingtons to full advantage.
Charlap’s single-minded focus on the Great American Songbook may prompt one to wonder whether he’ll sound as fresh in ten years. But today he is making beautiful music, while reminding us that there are still plenty of treasures buried within standards.
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