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.
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.