Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bill Charlap knows his stuff

Pianist Bill Charlap might be the only significant jazz instrumentalist to fully emerge in the last five to seven years who has made a large impact on the jazz scene by playing true "straight ahead" jazz. Just a decade ago, straight ahead bop based acoustic jazz was truly bountiful, especially with the major labels. Now with most of those labels either shuttered or merged (Warner Brothers Jazz, Impulse) or shifted in focus to releasing "adult pop" (Verve, which counts both Paul Anka and Linda Rondstadt on their current jazz roster). Blue Note, riding the success of Norah Jones has still managed to release some fine jazz from Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jason Moran, and Wynton Marsalis, but even it has Anita Baker and Rev. Al Green occupying space once filled by Benny Green, Rodney Jones (see below) and Mark Shim. While indie labels like HighNote and Telarc have picked up the slack, as well as artist run labels like Dave Douglas' Greenleaf Records, and the Marsalis Music imprint of Wynton's brother Branford, many artists have ditched the "neo-bop" sounds of the 90's for a more electronic approach. Some of the projects are truly innovative, or at least unique. But far too often they're just warmed over sounds from the 70's, music like the "neo-bop" of the previous decade was a slickly marketed repackaging of sounds from the 50's and 60's.

Thus, given the climate of today's jazz scene, the emergence of Bill Charlap, a piano player's piano player, a man who eschews those retro-electro fusion trappings, turntablists, m.c.'s, and covers of tunes by British rock bands, which are all the rage among his peers, is indeed quite remarkable. Charlap, who started out as a pianist with the like of Phil Woods and Gerry Mulligan, works almost exclusively with his tight knit trio of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, and has released a string of excellent, "Great American Songbook" based records since 2000, all on Blue Note. Both critically and popularly acclaimed (to the extent we can use that term for any jazz artist) Charlap is virtually alone amongst his major label peers, and has somehow managed to take a supremely familiar format and approach, and breathe new life and personality into the music.

Unlike most of his jazz piano peers, Charlap sounds little like Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner or Bill Evans, though he has obviously absorbed their recordings and harmonic sensibilities. Instead, if anyone could be cited as a chief influence on Charlap it might be Tommy Flanagan, or Barry Harris, both known for impeccable taste and a deft touch at the keyboard. Charlap though has a percussive attack at times that owes more to Duke Ellington, Ahmad Jamal or Dave Brubeck, and at other times a minimalism that would make John Lewis or Count Basie proud.

But Charlap's approach to a song is what really impresses me, and his extensive knowledge of the material he plays. He knows this stuff inside and out, perhaps due to the fact that he grew up with the songs of Gershwin and Arlen and Porter; Charlap's father was the composer Moose Charlap and his mother, vocalist Sandy Stewart, the featured "guest" on the pianist's second cd this year. And not only does Charlap know this material better than most anyone else in jazz, he is one of the most articulate speakers in jazz. Last year, Charlap was featured in an open conversation at the Monterey Jazz Festival, (I seem to recall it being hosted by Marian McPartland, but don't quote me on that). He provided a most insightful discussion of the music of Bernstein (the subject of his then most recent cd) and Gershwin, (the subject of his then upcoming cd). Doug Ramsey of Rifftides posted a couple of things about Charlap's recent talk and performances at the Earshot Jazz Festival a few days ago, which got me thinking about Charlap again. If you haven't heard his music, and enjoy the "straight ahead" piano trio, and would like to hear a new voice in that style, you could do far worse than Charlap.

Doug Ramsey on Charlap:


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