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New York Trio: Thou Swell & Always

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New York Trio
Thou Swell
Venus
2007
New York Trio
Always
Venus
2008

Does any jazz musician alive today (be it player or singer) share more devotedly and mine with deeper conviction that widely-vaunted but too-often-dismissed-with-lip-service Great American Songbook than pianist Bill Charlap? This child of songwriter Moose and chanteuse Sandy Stewart was lovingly reared on the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway classics he so meticulously reimagines (usually romantically, occasionally puckishly, always honestly) on album after album. Thus Charlap's been recording beauty upon beauty with singular focus and unfailing swingability—abetted by terrific teammates—for a baker's dozen years; his '90s Criss Cross trio dates were goodie-laden grab-bags; Blue Note continued that tradition with Written In The Stars (gems by Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, et al.), before producer Joel Moss wisely let him dedicate entire albums to individual composer/craftsmen of the golden age of popular song such as Hoagy Carmichael (Stardust), Los Hermanos Gershwin (The American Soul) and Lenny Bernstein (Somewhere).

Emphatically not a guy to be deterred from artistic completion by the wrys and fawns of the big bad music business, the modest, super-musical Charlap keeps the flame bright here with two new volumes from Venus in Japan, unerringly well-crafted albums devoted to theme and variation on the collected songs of Richard Rodgers (Thou Swell) and Irving Berlin (Always). With him now are bassist Jay Leonhart, himself an able singer and vocal interpreter, and drummer Bill Stewart, a happy collaborator reunited from the Criss Cross dates.

As ever, Charlap handpicks several less-than-obvious diamonds-in-the-rough. Sensitive singers will hear some of these and intone, "Gimme that leadsheet!" Charlap's tender treatment of the Rodgers love song I'd not heard since the inimitable Mabel Mercer stunningly retold it in 1977 at Boston's Merry-Go-Round Room, "That's For Me," brought me willies of wonderment, tears of recognition. Then he turns smartly around and briskly charms the pants off "Have You Met Miss Jones?" (Leonhart plucking firmly and Stewart whisking flies) as he balances the genteel mezzo-piano delicacy of Hank Jones with the brusque pungency of Andre Previn's trio with Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne with a bell-clear resonance at any tempo that's all his own. They revert to spacious legato on "There's A Small Hotel" (Stewart's brushes churn cream into butter.) And they end with a breathtaker on the endearing waltz "Wait Til You See Her." It gets better yet, if possible, on Always. Charlap's Irving Berlin set floats like a butterfly, or rather Fred Astaire's ineffable step, pinpoint turns in place. There haven't been so many of these unusually structured Berlins on a single since Fred crooned them with Oscar Peterson and Charlie Shavers in 1952: "Cheek to Cheek," "Change Partners," "Isn't It A Lovely Day?" That dancing, airy feeling pervades every track; it's like a suite to rooftop Manhattan lounges, where this trio could be the house band for eternity. Aah, pacing! Aah, cityscape!

Tracks and Personnel

Though Swell

Tracks: Thou Swell; My Funny Valentine; I Didn't Know What Time It Was; Where Or When; My Heart Stood Still; That's For Me; Have You Met Miss Jones?; There's A Small Hotel; With A Song In My Heart; Wait Till You See Her.

Personnel: Bill Charlap: piano; Jay Leonhart: bass; Bill Stewart: drums.

Always

Tracks: Always; Cheek To Cheek; They Say It's Wonderful; I Got The Sun In The Morning; How Deep Is The Ocean; Change Partners; What'll I Do; Isn't This A Lovely Day?; The Song Is Ended; Russian Lullaby.

Personnel: Bill Charlap: piano; Jay Leonhart: bass; Bill Stewart: drums.

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