The Magazine

His Shining Hour

Bill Charlap and his Trio are reinvigorating jazz.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By JAY WEISER
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The first time I heard them was in the late 1990s at Zinno's, a now-departed New York piano room/Italian restaurant that was my Friday night haunt--and it was a shock. It wasn't just the speed: Lots of jazz musicians can spit out the notes with the facility (and imagination) of a machine gun. It was the starts and stops--the hairpin turns--and the delicacy married to a ferocious drive. The Bill Charlap Trio, with the eponymous pianist at the helm, and bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington (brothers in music only), has been a working group all that time--a rarity in jazz these days.

This year the trio recently issued its fifth American album, Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note), making use of the Vanguard's perfect acoustics. Like most of the group's work, it mainly relies on the composers of the Great American Songbook. Live at the Village Vanguard is unthemed, but previous albums have explored the music of George Gershwin (Bill Charlap Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul; Blue Note 2005) and Hoagy Carmichael (Stardust; Blue Note 2002), often using lesser-known tunes. Somewhere (Blue Note 2004) plumbs the slender Leonard Bernstein Broadway book for such jazz rarities as "Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide and "Ohio" from Wonderful Town. (Charlap considered, but didn't essay, Wonderful Town's "Wrong Note Rag," perhaps because Bernstein's tin ear for African-American music--rooted in the same contempt as his radical chic romance with the Black Panthers--resulted in a rhythmically thin, clichéd tune.) A sixth album, the Japanese import 'S Wonderful (Venus 2002), has received only a limited U.S. release.

Given the trio's interest in melody, standards work better than highly technical jazz originals, but this repertory creates hazards of its own. Many other treatments of the standards are leaden in their reverence. (Ella Fitzgerald's zombie Songbook series, which raised the canon from the dead while sucking out its soul, is the most notorious example.) Sometimes the trio adds life through tempo changes, a common jazz technique: "My Shining Hour" (Live at the Village Vanguard) rockets Jerome Kern's shimmering ballad, underpinned by the steel-fingered Peter Washington's endless streams of 32nd notes, until Kenny Washington, always a melodic drum soloist, slows down his first chorus using brushes on the snare, then re-accelerates with up-tempo brush rolls on the tom-toms.

The trio also takes an unconventional approach to rhythm. Thinning out the patterns on each instrument, each player's part is dominated by a single line, particularly in the arranged sections. Charlap emphasizes single-note runs in the piano's upper register, while Kenny Washington relies on brushwork. With this evanescent sound, the interactions become clearer, and the spaces and tempo shifts get more emphasis than in groups that use a denser, more chorded style. In "America" from Bernstein's West Side Story (Somewhere), the trio transforms Bernstein's insistent triplets. Peter Washington starts unaccompanied, improvising over a four-note figure, on which Kenny Washington offers a few spare comments. The bass figure turns into a rolling pair of repeated triplets (off the beat, in contrast to Bernstein's original), and Kenny Washington adds an offbeat accent on the snare where the second beat of the original melody would have fallen. Charlap begins playing fragments of the original melody in single-note lines, adds sequences of chords as he improvises, then moves back to a single-note melody fragment that disappears into lower-register block chords, without ever fully stating the melody. The Middle Eastern sound totally transforms the jackhammer exuberance of the original.

On uptempo numbers, the trio comes out of Bud Powell's bebop by way of Tommy Flanagan, the tradition's flame-keeper of the 1980s and '90s; unlike its predecessors, it often collectively improvises the second chorus after the melody statement of the first chorus. Charlap favors blazing tempos supported by a steady pulse. Hoagy Carmichael's "Jubilee" (Stardust), introduced by Louis Armstrong in 1937 as a medium-tempo evocation of New Orleans, turns into a strut on steroids: Charlap opens with a march-like three-note figure from the end of the melody and modulates it, stuttering the rhythms eight times before the trio launches into a series of vertiginous descents through the original chord structure.