Bill Charlap: The Natural
He always leaves something to remember him by.
© -Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved. The New Yorker,
April 19, 1999.
“There is a secret emotional center in jazz which has sustained the music since it outgrew its early melodic and rhythmic gaucheries, in the late twenties. This center, a kind of aural elixir, reveals itself when an improvised phrase or an entire solo or even a complete number catches you by surprise and sends tremors up your spine. When these lyrical bursts happen in night clubs or at concerts their lovely afterimages inevitably fade. Caught on recordings, though, they last forever
So here, in no particular order, are some classic recorded beauties: the first twelve or so bars of Louis Armstrong’s second solo on both takes of "Some of These Days," played in a revolving half time in his low register and unlike anything else he ever recorded (Columbia; 1929); the eerie, almost surrealistic melody that Paul Gonsalves fashions on the first bridge of a "Caravan" done with Duke Ellington (Fantasy; 1962); Charlie Parker's stunning two-chorus solo on "Funky Blues," replete with an opening now-listen preaching figure, a shivering, sotto-voce run at the start of the second chorus, and a dodging, ascending climactic figure (Verve; 1952); the cluster of soft, keening notes that Joe Lovano plays near the end of "Lament for M," a dirge by Gunther Schuller written in memory of his wife for "Rushhour" (Blue Note; 1995); the Sidney de Paris-Ben Webster-Vic Dickenson-James P. Johnson-Sid Catlett "After You've Gone," certainly as close to a flawless jazz recording as exists (Blue Note; 1944); and all of the remarkable pianist Bill Charlap's "Turnaround," an Ornette Coleman blues that he fills with huge, stuttering chords and sailing-along-the-tonal-edge single-note lines (Criss Cross; 1995).
Indeed, Charlap is a lyrical repository. At thirty-two, he is the best, but least well known, of a swarm of gifted pianists who have appeared in
in the past ten years or so. He has already filled much of the sizable space once occupied by Bill Evans, who still reverberates almost twenty years after his death. Unlike many of the younger pianists, whose tastes tend to be parochial, Charlap has absorbed every pianist worth listening to in the past fifty years, starting with Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Rowles, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, and Oscar Peterson, then moving through Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Bill Evans, and finishing with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and New York Kenny Barron. His ballad numbers are unique. He may start with the verse of the song, played ad lib, then move into the melody chorus. He does not rhapsodize. Instead, he improvises immediately, rearranging the chords and the melody line, and using a relaxed, almost implied beat. He may pause for a split second at the end of this chorus and launch a nodding, swinging single-note solo chorus, made up of irregularly placed notes - some off the beat and some behind the beat - followed by connective runs, and note clusters. He closes with a brief, calming recap of the melody. His ballads are meditations on songs, homages to their composers and lyricists. He constantly reins in his up-tempo numbers. He has a formidable technique, but he never shows off, even though he will let loose epic runs, massive staccato chords, racing upper-register tintinnabulations, and, once in a while, some dazzling counterpoint, his hands pitted against each other. His sound shines; each note is rounded. Best of all, in almost every number, regardless of its speed, he leaves us a phrase, a group of irregular notes, an ardent bridge that shakes us.
Charlap has a narrow, handsome face, attentive eyes, and a direct, ready-to-laugh voice. He talks fast, and when he talks about his music he gradually accelerates. Here is what he said recently: "I don't ever remember not playing the piano. Everything was by ear at first, and I'd pick out everything I heard. When a teacher came to the house, I'd charm my way through the lesson. It was very painful and slow for me to learn to read music. The songs of Arlen, Gershwin, Porter, and
were paramount in my house, so jazz is about vocalism for me. Even a drum is vocal. To me, there are three steps in improvisation. The first involves the player's concentration, his heavy thinking. In the second, he becomes almost blasé, and he lets his fingers do the walking. And in the third he is detached from what he is doing. He's moving the pawns of the music, yet he has become a listener, who's, like, sitting there and watching what he's doing. From this stage, you go on to experience that supreme feeling, that omnipotent feeling at the heart of improvising." Berlin
Charlap knocks out both his musical contemporaries and his musical elders, some of whom are almost twice his age. The matchless bassist Michael Moore made a tight duo album with Charlap in 1995 (Concord), and has said of him, "So many players of Bill Charlap's generation haven't digested Jimmy Rowles, maybe haven't even heard of him, one of the greatest pianists. A lot of the young piano players today take themselves so seriously that sometimes their solos turn into complete piano concertos. They eat everything on the musical table and leave nothing for anyone else. But Bill goes right through each tune to the bone. He has a great imagination, and he has lightness and humor, even the pratfall kind of humor. We played a kind of Mafia Christmas party a while back, and when the guests sang the 'Twelve Days of Christmas' Bill played something totally different behind each person. He did Stockhausen behind a guy who couldn't carry a tune, and he played the 'St. Louis Blues' behind a woman who thought she could sing."
The guitarist Gene Bertoncini is another Charlap admirer, He was part of a spectacular trio that included Charlap and the bassist Sean Smith and drew S.R.O. crowds on a 1996 jazz cruise on the S.S. Norway. (Selections from the trio's three spacious performances are available on a Chiaroscuro CD, "Gene Bertoncini with Bill Charlap and Sean Smith.") "What I admire, aside from his playing, is his incredible knowledge of songs," Bertoncini said recently. "Whenever I work with him, he'll say, 'Gene, have you heard this song from 1947, or this song from 1938?' So in that way, although he's only thirty-two, he's an old man."
East Fifty-first Street, in , Charlap grew up in a musical and theatrical atmosphere. His mother is the singer Sandy Stewart, and his father, who died when Charlap was seven, was the songwriter Moose Charlap. Moose wrote most of the music, with Carolyn Leigh, for the Mary Martin "Peter Pan" that was on Broadway in the mid-fifties. And he wrote the music, with Eddie Lawrence, for a still lamented 1965 musical called "Kelly," which got terrific reviews in Philadelphia but was disastrously fiddled with at the last minute by its producers and closed in New York alter one night. New York has said, "Moose loved to laugh, and he loved to sing. He had a gravelly, wonderful voice - a rough kind of thing, like Aznavour. When he died, we were working on a musical about Paul Gauguin." Bill Charlap went to the Lawrence and to the High School for Performing Arts when it was still in a dilapidated building on Town School West Forty-sixth Street. He spent a year or two at SUNY-Purchase, and he studied classical piano, but, he says, "My classical piano was not authentic. I was speaking classical piano with a jazz accent. A teacher I had asked me why I played everything with street rhythms." Gerry Mulligan hired Charlap in the late eighties, and he has since divided his time between his own trio and random gigs abroad and with the Phil Woods Quintet.
You have to search for Charlap in
. He did four nights at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, on University Place, in January, and he was at Zinno, on West Thirteenth Street, with his trio-Peter Washington on bass and New York Kenny Washington on drums-for five days, in March. The gig at the Knickerbocker was hard work. Most people go there to eat and drink and talk, and the piano is almost an afterthought. It sits on the floor hard by a low wall that separates the huge main room from the thundering bar. Charlap's first number on his third night was a medium-tempo version of Kurt Weill's "Here I'll Stay." It was full of backpedaling chords, loose, almost atonal single-note lines, and a couple of mercurial arpeggios. The din in the place was palpable, but Charlap's passion for his music was immediately clear in his playing and in his bobbing, tightly masked face, which stayed a foot or so above the keyboard. Six people near the piano clapped at the end of the tune. His next number, Gerry Mulligan's "Curtains," got eight claps, and Irving Berlin's "The Best Thing for You" got ten. Cole Porter's "All Through the Night," played at an up tempo, was the last number in the set and, when it began, a heavy, middle-aged, wool-wrapped Irish couple stood up in the bar to leave, stopped ten feet from the piano, and listened, their big Irish faces still and pleased. They clapped twice before they left, and there were twelve more claps from the main room. Charlap has said of the Knickerbocker, "It's a great place to practice when you're not working that night."
In the meantime, before Charlap's next
gig (with Phil Woods at the Iridium, early in June, and with his trio at Zinno later in the month), find his newest CD, "All Through the Night" (Criss Cross), and listen carefully to the start of the second full chorus on Alec Wilder's "It's So Peaceful in the Country." Charlap, leaving a beautifully chorded and measured melody chorus, steps off into a handful of unevenly spaced single notes, a firm four/four rhythm underneath, and the earth suddenly moves.” New York