Men At Work: Live Sets From Bill Charlap & Steve Kuhn

C. Andrew Hovan By

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A perfect locale for the jazz improviser, remote recordings allow for a degree of expression and creativity that often goes beyond the more controlled atmosphere of a recording studio. Over the years, it has almost become a rite of passage for jazz musicians to pick an iconic jazz venue and then set up the equipment to tape a performance that captures a particular moment in time. The Village Vanguard and Birdland prove to be particularly conducive settings for live performances by pianists Bill Charlap and Steve Kuhn, both of them recently released by Blue Note.

Bill Charlap
Live At The Village Vanguard
Blue Note

Bill Charlap brings his long-standing trio with Peter and Kenny Washington, on bass and drums, to the Vanguard for a no nonsense set that reveals added nuances each time you give it a spin. Unlike some of his recent studio dates, that have focused on a particular theme, this disc captures a typical performance by the trio with a wealth of variety and moods tapped along the way. Charlap is particularly adept at choosing pieces that come from a different area of the jazz lexicon, such as the "cool sounds and neo-bop offered by Gerry Mulligan's "Rocker and George Wallington's "Godchild.

It's especially rewarding to hear Charlap revisit "While We're Young and "Last Night When We Were Young, two pieces heard almost a decade ago on his sophomore release, Distant Star (Criss Cross, 1997). The former is updated with an especially attractive bossa beat provided by Kenny Washington while the latter is a glowing example of Charlap's talents as a balladeer. At this point in their existence, the trio has developed an empathy that goes beyond the customary. It's not about bombast and dazzling technical displays, but an emotionally charged and mature sense of craft that is all too rare these days.

Steve Kuhn
Live At Birdland
Blue Note

For those of us attuned to Steve Kuhn's particular sense of drama and adventure, more than enough fodder has been provided over the past decade or so in an especially gratifying series of trio recordings for Japan's Venus label (although these pricey discs have probably not been devoured in any great degree by American fans). Now the pianist makes his major label debut and does so with this ebullient set where he is more than ably assisted by Ron Carter on bass and Al Foster on drums.

The opening "If I Were a Bell is prototypical Kuhn in that his approach to space and tempo is his own. He first explores the line in elongated phrases, before settling into a groove. On "Jitterbug Waltz, Kuhn resists the temptation to turn up the tempo, slowly milking the changes with lines that sport their own unique shape and rhythmic syntax. Throughout, Carter is the model of support, his signature walk establishing such numbers as "Slow Hot Wind and "Little Waltz. As for Foster, he's the perfect drummer for an iconoclast such as Kuhn and his cymbal sound is a beautiful and palpable presence throughout. Arguably, this is one of Kuhn's best records to date and hopefully a precursor to more Blue Note dates in the future.

Tracks and Personnel

Live At The Village Vanguard

Tracks: Rocker; Autumn In New York; Godchild; The Lady Is A Tramp; It's Only A Paper Moon; My Shining Hour; All Across The City; While We're Young; Last Night When We Were Young.

Personnel: Bill Charlap: piano; Peter Washington: bass; Kenny Washington: drums.

Live At Birdland

Tracks: If I Were A Bell; Jitterbug Waltz; Two By Two; La Plus Que Lente/Passion Flower; Little Waltz; Lotus Blossom; Stella By Starlight; Slow Hot Wind; Clotilde; Confirmation.

Personnel: Steve Kuhn: piano; Ron Carter: bass; Al Foster: drums.

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