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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On "The Lady is a Tramp" (Lorenz Hart; Live at the Village Vanguard), Peter Washington builds a bass solo on a rocking three-note figure from the melody, which reappears in different guises. Charlap, playing over Kenny Washington's brushed swing cymbal beat, augments his spare single-note lines with strings of bass chords and octave runs, building from an almost subliminal left hand early in his solo to fully voiced counterpoint at the climax, and making more use of the lower register as he builds. This is as close to Oscar Peterson as he gets, and reflects a change from his approach to the group's first major flagwaver, "In the Still of the Night" (Cole Porter; Written in the Stars; Blue Note 2000). Even at its speediest, the trio conveys the thread of the song, never merely running the chord changes.

Ballads are often collectively improvised the whole way through, taking a page from the classic Bill Evans Trio of the early '60s, as can be heard by comparing the groups' versions of "Some Other Time" (the trio's on Somewhere; Evans's on his own live Village Vanguard session, Waltz For Debby [Riverside 1961]), though the Charlap Trio uses a more explicit pulse. On the glacial "It's Only a Paper Moon" (Harold Arlen; Live at the Village Vanguard), as on most ballads, Kenny Washington becomes the primary timekeeper, using brushes on cymbals, while Peter Washington improvises under the melody. Charlap takes the melody line with single-note runs augmented with bluesy two-note figures, and with more space to fill, a fuller set of chords.

The trio's Gershwin and Carmichael tributes, like many jazz albums of the last 15 years, feature multiple guest artists. While the guests are excellent musicians, they are unable to integrate into the tight dynamic of the trio, which turns into a highly professional, but unexceptional, rhythm section. For an album to benefit from another instrument's added colors, the trio may need to find a single artist with the time to work into the groove. Charlap did this successfully in his own duo album with tenor saxophonist Houston -Person, You Taught My Heart to Sing (Highnote 2006), where this least bluesy of pianists contrasts perfectly with his partner, who wears his blues reputation as a self-styled badge of honor.

The Bill Charlap Trio's lightness of touch and relentless propulsion reconfigure the standards. It's always worth hearing.

Jay Weiser has written on jazz for the Village Voice, Down Beat, and Salon.