Notes From New York (Impulse Records)
Bill Charlap Trio
Released in April, 2016
DownBeat Five-Star Review
Playing a melody is an art in itself. An art that at one and the same time necessitates humbleness, attention, experience and intuition. In the world’s jazz capital of New York, Bill Charlap is considered one of the great players of melodies, songs written for musicals, Broadway shows or films that, when detached from their source, become those standards that jazz performers turn to their advantage.
Not only does Bill Charlap have dozens of them at his fingertips; he is also capable of doing justice to each one, pointing to the subtlety of a phrase in its depth of harmony, for instance. His touch has a rare elegance. In this respect he is one of the surest heirs of a certain tradition of jazz piano, that tradition whose essential figures are Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Shirley Horn — Bill has known them all — together with Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Ahmad Jamal or Sonny Clark.
A great connoisseur of that American Songbook from which, in the past, he has drawn material for albums dedicated to Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein, Bill Charlap, born in 1966, preserves this love of song while leading the trio he has formed since 1997 with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. Eminently respected by their peers, the latter — they’re not related — are, like Bill Charlap, instrumentalists who have contributed to return jazz to its acoustic cradle after decades of electrified experiments and all kinds of fusion; and they have done so by renewing with the trio tradition and the standard’s basic forms, without a hint of nostalgia but with the conviction that those forms are still far from exhausted, and have resisted the years much better than other fashions both noisier and more perishable. Welded together by the years, and perfectly in phase as regards its musical aspirations, this trio is one of the most seamlessly practised there is, and a perfect match for the pianist’s ambitions.
When he began playing, Bill Charlap was given encouragement by two saxophonists — Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods — who appreciated their young partner’s pianistic qualifications, his assurance as an accompanist, the finesse in his playing (one that showed no age), and his unfailing sense of swing. Bill’s attachment to standards is in his blood: he grew up with a father who was also a Broadway composer, and a mother who sang in the clubs (and with whom, incidentally, Bill has recorded two albums.) Writers of musicals would regularly consult Bill’s parents to test the value of their new songs, and yet that context only partly explains the intimate nature of the relationship that the pianist shares with this repertoire; the other reason lies in his experience, acquired alongside such elders as Benny Carter, Clark Terry, Jim Hall or Frank Wess, who taught him how to reveal the riches and depth that existed in this music.
In nine titles, this album Notes from New York provides an accomplished and generously warm sample of the talent of Bill Charlap. While he closes the record with two standards that are quite familiar, “I’ll Remember April”, carried by the spirited brushwork of Kenny Washington, and the famous “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, played solo and transfigured as a ballad that plays against the grain of habit, pianist Charlap has elected to exhume melodies that are rarely played, and beneath his fingers they take on new life. Among other rarities, for example, there’s a song made popular in jazz by Ella Fitzgerald (among others): “Make Me Rainbows”, taken from the original soundtrack of the 1967 film Fitzwilly, was written by John Williams a few years before he made his name alongside Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Bill Charlap approaches this title like Ahmad Jamal might play it: buoyed by the swing of his partners in rhythm. Studded with veiled musical references, “Not a Care in the World” gives the pianist occasion to play a facetious solo that doubles in intensity as soon as Kenny Washington picks up his brushes. “There Is No Music”, introduced with subtlety, reminds you that Bill Charlap still has a great feeling for the poetry of Bill Evans, and the title develops with an admirable sense of space that takes the pianist’s expression to the furthest reaches of his piano’s register. With “A Sleepin’ Bee”, on the other hand, Charlap delivers a solo that is filled with humour (and, it seems, all the unpredictable character of a bumble bee in flight…) “Little Rascal on the Rock”, in other times a song played regularly by the late Hank Jones, is a composition by Hank’s younger sibling Thad, and can be heard as a dedication to Bill’s departed mentor; played with precision in its slightest nuance, and with each note attacked and articulated so firmly that it becomes admirable, “Rascal” continues to distil a constant swing at the hands of the pianist. In contrast, the lengthiest track on the album, “Too Late Now”, evolves with a hint of melancholy in a twilight atmosphere that is entirely after-hours. Written by guitarist Tiny Grimes and made immortal by Charlie Parker, “Tiny’s Tempo” reminds us that bebop is an integral part of Bill Charlap’s culture, not to mention that of his partners, as illustrated by Peter Washington with a sparkling solo, and by Kenny in the fours he exchanges with the pianist. In all, this album is a confirmation: that Bill Charlap, uncontestably and superlatively, excels in the art of the trio.
1. I’ll Remember April (Gene DePaul / Patricia Johnston / Don Raye) 4:55
2. Make Me Rainbows (Alan Bergman / Marilyn Bergman / John Williams) 7:04
3. Not a Care in the World (Vernon Duke / John Latouche) 5:59
4. There Is No Music (Ira Gershwin / Harry Warren) 6:08
5. A Sleepin’ Bee (Harold Arlen / Truman Capote) 4:52
6. Little Rascal on a Rock (Thad Jones) 5:07
7. Too Late Now (Burton Lane / Alan Jay Lerner) 8:54
8. Tiny’s Tempo (Lloyd Grimes / Clyde Hart) 5:59
9. On the Sunny Side of the Street (Dorothy Fields / Jimmy McHugh) 5:03
Bill Charlap: piano
Peter Washington: bass
Kenny Washington: drums
Recorded June 1 – 2, 2015, at Avatar Studios, NYC
Recorded & Mixed by James Farber
Produced by Bill Charlap
Executive Producer & Art Direction: Farida Bachir
Bill Charlap is often described as the epitome of mainstream pianists, in the tradition of iconic players from Art Tatum to Ahmad Jamal. But the term “mainstream” becomes meaningless when one considers Charlap’s technical mastery, his subtelty and his unflagging melodic invention—or should we say, re-invention. Fresh from the critical and popular triumph of The Silver Lining, his Jerome Kern tribute with Tony Bennett, the new album with his finely calibrated trio (Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums) is his first for the newly reinvented Impulse! label. It delivers nine standards, only three of which are widely familiar (“I’ll Remember April,” “A Sleepin’ Bee,” and “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”). The rest of the program is devoted to obscure but delightful songs from the worlds of Broadway, film and jazz. The album is a master class in, well, class. The opening track, “I’ll Remember April,” is alone worth the price of the album. Starting with its intro, in which Charlap manipulates our perception of where the bar line is, he plays with time and reharmonizes the song in continually surprising ways. Other highlights include Thad Jones’ bouncy, unpredictable “Little Rascal On A Rock” and a joyous excursion into bebop à la Bird with “Tiny’s Tempo.” Saving the best for last, Charlap’s solo-piano interpretation of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” challenges our notions of this most familiar song. He plays it very slowly and thoroughly reharmonizes it, turning it into a wistful tone poem loaded with nostalgia for a bygone era.
Allen Morrison (DownBeat)