"Somewhere" (at the Vanguard) with Bill Charlap & the Washingtons

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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The house became so breathless that there wasn't even the clink of a glass.
One reason I enjoy researching my Nite & Disks is that I get a fuller sense of what the artists are up to, since there can be a considerable difference between the archived and live versions of the same material. Sometimes it's due to various playing conditions: more or less tension, the visit (or absence) of the Muse, the moods and events of the day, the producer's opinions, the receptiveness (and manners) of the audience, a player's toothache, the quality of the sound. Sometimes it's simply that the more they perform the CD tracks, the better they get.

Perhaps something like this was operating the other night at the Vanguard, when Bill Charlap's Trio began its two-week run after the release of Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein. For one thing, there was more snap, crackle and pop in the live version of "Cool." A highlight of the CD, its incisive inner lines will be familiar to West Side Story fans; so will the cover design, with its orange and black and fire escapes, evoking the original sound track album. So what added the extra oomph? Some of it was because, by that point in the first set, after the racing, dazzling "Jump," ïberdrummer Kenny Washington had caught fire. When he came offstage, he was still throwing embers and sparks. He was more comfortable with the material now, he told me happily — though there's no hint of discomfort on the CD.

When I first played Somewhere , aside from the brilliant "Cool," the sizzling "America" and the incendiary "Jump," I was struck by its laid-back feeling. Then I saw a Times review by Ben Ratliff in which he said, "what you remember from Somewhere is melancholy." With all due respect, Ben, what you remember is melancholy; what I remember is purity and calm. His review overlooks the swinging version of "It's Love," the mellow coolth of "Lucky to Be Me," the sly vamping in "Big Stuff," and the humor in "Ohio." "Lonely Town" is a very poignant ballad, and it's tenderly played, but it's not even minor-keyed, so I found no need for the record to "rally" from it, as he did. Charlap's solo on "Somewhere" is pretty literal, and it is a sad song, but I heard more wistfulness than "darkness" in "Some Other Time." But that's why they make chocolate and vanilla. We always have to add " critical conditions " to the list of filters between an artist and his audience.

For me, the special thing about Charlap, aside from his encyclopedic knowledge of the American songbook, is his touch. He can play so softly that it seems that he's breathed, rather than manually struck, a note. His passion for melody is always evident, and when you watch him play, you can appreciate the concentrated grace of his technique. I usually sit behind the piano at the Vanguard, to watch the keyboard, but this time I wasn't early enough and ended up in the "balcony" — which is actually the same height as the stage — on the side, closer to the drums. This turned out to be a good thing, since I was better able to catch Charlap's facial expressions; hovering around 40, he's still boyish-looking (maybe it's the haircut?) and his grins are infectious.

There was a lot to grin about, too, like the extended improvisation on "Cool," which enhanced its already-memorable translation on the CD. The set opened with a luscious "Stardust," and included several tunes that aren't on the disk (like the great and greasy "Blues in the Night"), though there was a delightful version of "Uptown Downtown" by Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist for "West Side Story." And I now have an indelible memory: of Charlap spinning a gossamer web on "Some Other Time," as Kenny brushes on some sparkle and Peter's long, elegant fingers gather up all the beauty from his bass. The house became so breathless that there wasn't even the clink of a glass.

Smiles were everywhere during their consummate arrangement of "In the Still of the Night," where its abruptly shifting tempos sound like a bunch of mischievous kids running away, stopping suddenly, and pretending to be innocent. This innovative arrangement opens the trio's Written in the Stars CD (Blue Note, 2000), which I happened to be playing on the ride down; overall, it seemed to me, the improvisation on the earlier release was more demanding of the listener.

That started me thinking: was it possible that Blue Note encouraged the trio to keep things accessible, given the success they've had with Norah and a relatively restrained Dianne Reeves in A Little Moonlight ? I caught Charlap as he raced around between sets, and started to ask the question, but I got no further than the preamble when he said, "Nope. Never." So there you have it. (I think.)

Kenny Washington told me that a live CD may be next. If it's anything like this night at the Vanguard, keep an eye out for it. And in the meantime, there's a great deal to enjoy on Somewhere , particularly for fans of Bernstein and West Side Story. I'll end this with a paraphrase on the lyrics to "Ohio": why, oh why, oh why-oh, is Bill Charlap not in the All Music Guide to Jazz? He's one of the very best we have.


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