Recording Date: Oct 15, 2003,Oct 16, 2003
Similar to 2000's Hoagy Carmichael-based Stardust, Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein finds pianist Bill Charlap continuing his exploration of great American composers. A longtime fan of Bernstein's work, Charlap conveys a very personal feeling throughout the album. Some may ask, why is another jazz trio album of standards necessary? Charlap answers this admirably with highly sophisticated yet direct arrangements and his usual stellar improvisational skills. Many of the songs from West Side Story work astonishingly well in a modern jazz format. Notably, "America" receives an expansive McCoy Tyner meets Tito Puente treatment, while "Jump" is serious post-bop Raymond Scott. Joining Charlap are his longtime collaborators bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. Together, the trio showcase an uncanny sense of timing and group interplay that only comes from years of performing together.
All Music Guide
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Bill Charlap (By John Guare)
I first heard Bill Charlap on Jonathan Schwartz's essential weekend radio show playing "The Man That Got Away" with such an obsessive, relentless, suicidal clarity that I literally ran out, got his Blue Note CD Written in the Stars and must've played that cut 50 times in a row until my wife said there must be something else on that CD. There was. The jauntiest of "Blue Skies." The coolest of "In the Still of the Night." The Bill Charlap Trio took great tunes from our greatest composers and breathed new life into them, taking them apart, putting them back together with a rapturous musicality, as if he were surprised and thrilled by what they were giving him, what he was telling them, as if he was revealing secrets about these songs.
Who is this guy? I had known a young Broadway composer named Moose Charlap back in the '60s. He'd written a good portion of the Mary Martin-Jerome Robbins "Peter Pan," a show called "Kelly" famous for closing on opening night, "Whoop Up" that had a sensational song in it called "Love Eyes." He died way too soon in the early 70s after a long illness. I called Jonathan Schwartz, himself the son of a Broadway composer. "Yes," said Jonathan Schwartz, "Bill is Moose's son. His mother is Sandy Stewart." "Of the crystalline voice?" Back in the '60s, she had a hit "My Coloring Book."
Bill Charlap's next Blue Note album Stardustms devoted to Hoagy Carmichael. Charlap said: "I didn't know his music as well as I know others. That was reason enough to do the project, to jump in and learn his melodic language, to uncover the breadth of his musical world."
And here he is now, with his genius partners, the unrelated Washingtons, Kenny on drums, Peter on bass, tackling the intricate breadth of Leonard Bernstein. Listen to the uncanny rhythmic interplay the three of them set up for themselves. I'll wager the maestro would have loved what the Bill Charlap Trio is up to. I had worked with Bernstein on an ill-fated musical for all of 1968 and then picked up on again in 1986. It was not a project with many highlights, except for one night after a desultory day trying to make a musical out of a Brecht fable about a merchant beating his coolie while they're lost in the desert, Lenny started noodling at the keyboard and sang Berlin's "Russian Lullaby." He played it first in a very outrageous sentimental way that made us laugh, but then he started playing the song straight. It surprised him. We sat at the piano for the next few hours singing all the Berlin we could muster. One part of him respected Berlin as much as Mahler. Bernstein had a love/hate relationship with his own popular work. I once told him how much I liked "Wonderful Town." He groaned and changed the subject He wanted to be remembered as the composer of "Age of Anxiety," "Jeremiah," "Mass." Did he even make symphonic dances out of "West Side Story" to give that score a life in the concert hall? But the truth was Lenny was as much at home in a jazz joint like the Village Vanguard as he was in Carnegie Hall.
I thought of this when my wife and I went to the Village Vanguard to hear the Charlap Trio. This club in the '30s housed an act called the Revuers who were these kids - Judy Holliday, Betty Comden and Adolph Green - who wrote and performed their own material to sensational acclaim. Adolph had a pal named Lenny, an aspiring musician; they'd been counselors at the same summer camp. Lenny came to the Vanguard night after night to see the Revuers. On some nights Lenny would even fill in on keyboard for his pals. This was way before the counselor at the camp had become the great Leonard Bernstein. Listening to Bill Charlap return the favor and play Bernstein with the same simplicity, respect, awe and gusto that Bernstein had played Berlin, I thought it's come full circle. Lenny's back at the Vanguard.
And now we have this album. Listen to the hilarious strutting cockiness of "Lucky To Be Me," the way Charlap strips away the mock self-importance of "Glitter And Be Gay" from "Candide" and reveals a lyric yearning. "Some Other Time," "Lonely Town," "Cool," the magisterial "Somewhere." Charlap and the Washingtons make you think that it's Bernstein's theater music; with the lyrics of Comden and Green, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, that might be just what Bernstein will be remembered for.
Charlap was seven when his father died. I wonder if Bill Charlap's continuing examination of great American composers is just a way of keeping the conversation with his father alive.