The son of a Broadway composer, Bill Charlap seems to have the standard jazz repertoire in his blood. His is a resolutely mainstream approach, in the vein if not always the style of Oscar Peterson, and he sounds completely at home with the music on his latest album, Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein
Aided by the empathetic playing of Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, Charlap takes a fresh look at 12 of Bernstein's best-known tunes, derived mainly from West Side Story, On The Town, and Wonderful Town. "Cool," from the former musical, begins the record with a bang, shifting the already-jazzy rhythm around and building in intensity with each section. Charlap punctuates his solo with bluesy trills and rhythmic cadences that keep the melody line always within the ear's reach. "It's Love" swings brightly in a medium tempo and features a well-structured bass solo by Washington.
Charlap plays beautifully on several ballads. "Lonely Town" contains some lovely harmonic invention, as does a solo reading of "Somewhere." The pianist manages to convey the poignancy of the song's lyrics in his playing without resorting to sentimentality or emotional bombast. But he's not just a softy: A brief and frenzied run-through of "Jump" features some amazingly fast and long-limbed runs, and "America" is performed with a powerful rhythmic pulse and some spiky, carnivalesque figures.
At times, however, Charlap's approach can lead to music that is pretty but rather uninvolving. On "Some Other Time," for example, he plays the melody beautifully and lovingly, but over seven minutes never really develops it in a solo. This may have been meant in reverence (it is a gorgeous melody), but the effect on the listener is soporific. Long stretches of other tunes glide by smoothly and efficiently, but without much to grab the ear or set the foot a-tapping. Kenny Washington's drumming can be rather stiff; perhaps another player might push Charlap out of his restraint at times.
These criticisms aside, Somewhere conveys the beauty and emotional power of Bernstein's music. Fans of the composer's work will certainly welcome Charlap's thoughtful interpretations.