Bill Charlap is among the few jazz pianists today who refuse to treat the piano like a muscle car. Rather than peeling out on the keyboard, song after song, Bill is gentle and tender, providing the listener with plenty of space to admire the songs he's chosen and what he's doing with them. Playing gentle is hardly mousey. There's enormous complexity required by those artists who compel audiences to lean forward. Ahmad Jamal and his trio did this brilliantly in the 1950s. Same goes for trios led by George Shearing, Red Garland and Bill Evans. Allowing glorious songs to breathe requires the artist to stir up musical drama through storytelling, beauty and poise, not bombast and relentless attack. Restraint and an understanding of poetry are key.
On his new trio album—Notes From New York (Impulse)—Bill chose terrific songs, half of which you rarely hear these days. Accompanied sensitively by bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, Bill turns sleeper songs into panting, sensual works. I especially love what Bill does with Make Me Rainbows (John T. Williams, Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman), Not a Care in the World (Vernon Duke and John Latouche), There Is No Music (Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin), Little Rascal on a Rock (Thad Jones) and Too Late Now (Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner). In each case, Bill is on a date with these songs, listening carefully and attending to them with enormous sensitivity. The result is pure bliss.
Most listeners would be hard-pressed to hum the melodies of the tunes mentioned above. They are melodic jewels that rarely see the light of day. As a result, much of what you hear on Bill's new album sounds fresh and exciting. Bill explores these songs to his heart's content, creating lovely and lively interpretations without tripping into iconic versions in his unconscious ear. He's completely liberated here from classic versions hammered into our heads, and we hear him exhibiting exquisite keyboard taste.
Personally, I've heard enough versions of I Remember April, A Sleepin' Bee and On the Sunny Side of the Street to last a lifetime. While the trio's versions here certainly will bring a smile, more interesting to me is Bill's catalog curiosity and songbook scholarship that led him to choose the rarities. Too many new albums these days are plagued by the same dog-eared standards, as if great American composers wrote only four songs each. While I understand the need to include the familiar for commercial purposes, the sophisticated listener will be most excited by the new "guests" at the party. [Photo above of the Bill Charlap Trio, from left, drummer Kenny Washington, pianist Bill Charlap and bassist Peter Washington]
On Notes From New York, Bill, Peter and Kenny prove that there are rich lodes of lesser-known songbook material waiting to be mined for jazz treatment if you know where to look. And in the hands of the Bill Charlap Trio, these songs glitter and gleam. As for the album's liner notes by singer Carol Sloane, they are wonderfully informative, providing the history of each tune. Carol, of course, is no stranger to great songs that live way off the beaten path.
With Peter Washington and Kenny Washington by his side, Bill Charlap here hits new highs of sensitivity and intelligence. I, for one, can't wait to hear what he discovers next in the vaults of the great American songbook and jazz book and how the trio shows them off.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Bill Charlap Trio's Notes From New York (Impulse) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's the Bill Charlap Trio playing Thad Jones's Little Rascal on a Rock...