Gilmore Keyboard Festival

John Ephland By

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Gilmore Keyboard Festival
Kalamazoo, Michigan
April 25 to May 12, 2018

Thursday night is always the second night of the biennial Gilmore Keyboard Festival. Thursday night is also the first night for jazz, the festival putatively a classical music rollout with jazz confections, albeit well-considered, strewn throughout this 22-day cultural jewel based in Kalamazoo but spread throughout Southwest Michigan as well.

For the first of two jazz shows at Bell's Eccentric Cafe (yes, that Bell's, based in Kalamazoo), on the city's trendy, revitalized east side, it was the Christian Sands Trio, featuring Eric Wheeler on bass and (on only his second night with the band) blazing drummerkind Jonathan Barber. Indeed, by second set's end, you'd have thought Baylor was born and bred with a similar musical DNA as Sands and Nakamura, his well-placed, intensely mesmerizing solos threatening to take the spotlight from his boss. Sands, for his part, took it all in stride, so to speak, appearing like a proud papa unveiling this rhythmic sparkplug on this unsuspecting sold-out crowd.

In this, his second appearance at the Gilmore (as a teen, Sands performed at one of the festival's noon series shows in 2012), Sands' trio played a tight, punctuated set, austere in delivery, full of abbreviated up-tempo swinging. Opening with Wayne Shorter's '60s-era classic, "Humpty Dumpty," the trio took the song and made it the malleable piece Shorter no doubt intended it to be, the synthetic melody delivered with an emphasis on execution with much feeling. This was followed by a medium-tempo treatment of Miles Davis' "All Blues," featuring a very conversational Nakamura.

Following some sizzling Cuban material, there was a loss of steam, the music now seemingly all about force, a rollout of talent with no real feeling, the jazz almost mindless and routine. With "Her Song," a piece unlike anything that came before, they played it slow, almost mournfully so, the material much more composed, clearly un-virtuosic in delivery. And then, things become intense once again! only to become quiet, soulful once again, another song ending very quietly. With a slow stride-like intro laced with some lickety-split runs (a feast for keyboard lovers), the trio took it into high gear for a characteristically brisk sprint through "Cherokee." Again, though, the band ended up sounding perfunctory, the song played as mere routine, with a show-biz sheen. With loads of exertion, and despite an ending swinging soliloquy, this "Cherokee" was a train wreck.

Thursday night was followed by Sunday evening, the Bill Charlap Trio playing the second of two sets at the Williams Theatre Jazz Club on the campus of Western Michigan University. Last performing at the Gilmore Keyboard Festival in 2004, Charlap's group offered a return of sorts to material recorded for the trio's salute to one of America's greatest 20th-century composers, Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein. For this adult-plus full house, the music played likely stirred memories of days gone by, Charlap and his bandmates of 21 years, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, delivering intelligent, swinging and heartfelt renditions of songs taken from Broadway most often.

A medium-tempo "America," from West Side Story, kicked things off, the tune's Latin flair embossed by bassist Washington's driving ostinatos and the trio's vamping groove. Charlap's playing featured lots of flourishes amid some dandy reharmonizing, the song ending in a curious suspension. The band's revisit to Somewhere continued with their gracious, slow-swinging take on "Lucky To Be Me," from On The Town, the tune laced with a boatload of rich chords from Charlap, while "It's Love" was played as an up-tempo swinger with bop flourishes.

In what was one of two deeply moving pieces, "Lonely Town" once again featured Washington's bass playing, an intelligent counterpoint to the pianist's own way with this sweet, melancholic melody. A typically slow ballad, the band picked up the tempo slightly towards song's end, drummer Washington's brushwork enhancing the trio's tight interplay, Charlap adding some bluesy touches as they returned to "Lonely Town"'s original slow gait.

By this point, it was clear that this Gilmore audience remained not only attentive but actively so, the line between band and listener slowly dissolving.

"I Feel Pretty" was next, their rendition featuring alternating lively tempos in 3/4 and 4/4, naturally swinging all the while. Charlap's stride side emerged with "Big Stuff," his slow solo piano introduction quiet, meditative, ruminative, the music eventually slinking into some more trio swing. Not so much an improvisor but an interpreter with his own style, Charlap's sound seemed immersed in Bernstein's music. It's a sound that identifies Charlap the interpreter's voice. "Big Stuff" ended up being bluesy, funky, served at a crawling pace. A visit to "Glitter And Be Gay," from Candide, was followed by "Jump," a showcase for Washington's more fiery side, his solo focused primarily on his snare drum, the overall feeling explosive, the audience eventually clapping along in encouragement.

"Somewhere" was given a typically lyrical treatment en route to more fireworks with the "Be Cool" medley also from West Side Story, Charlap at times appearing to be immersed if not lost in the labyrinth of the music's various twists and turns. Closing out the show, Charlap introduced "Some Other Time," again from On The Town, as his "favorite." With no real soloing, this other deeply moving piece was just excellent group interplay, an execution of simple expression in the wake of so much otherwise "cool" fanfare.

The following morning, Charlap held a master class at Western. Featured were three music students, whom Charlap listened to, critiqued and complimented. It was an opportunity to see and hear as he took to a second piano for illustration and emphasis, the side of the artist as educator, communicating his ideas on composition, improvisation and the history of the jazz piano. Always the attentive listener, Charlap's feedback remained instructive, if not totally supportive of each student.

An engaged audience was treated to well-played (and tweaked) renditions of Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me," a Bud Powell classic from the bebop era and the standard "If I Should Lose You" by Ralph Rainger, Charlap unpacking each song, discussing such topics as the song's emphases, nuances and colors. He talked of "the drummer inside your head," stressing the importance of rhythm, and quoting a favorite of Charlap's, pianist Kenny Baron, who instructed that one should "think like a tap dancer."
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