[JPL] Working Hard to Make the Old Numbers, Familiar and Otherwise, Sound New

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Jun 1 14:51:42 EDT 2007

May 31, 2007
Music Review
Working Hard to Make the Old Numbers, Familiar and
Otherwise, Sound New 
When jazz is played well enough, it becomes conceptual
art without really trying. There’s so much there: the
idea of improvisation; the idea of what a song is; the
idea of (in some cases) an American style, and the
disappearance or persistence thereof; repertory versus
imagination; received wisdom versus innovation;
concision versus the big statement.

All this emerged during the first set by the pianist
Bill Charlap’s trio at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on
Tuesday. But the music wasn’t programmatic: None of
these ideas were out on stalks, and the set, 10 songs
in a little more than an hour, didn’t feel like a

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Mr. Charlap started with two bebop tunes from the
1950s that, generally speaking, you never hear: “Odd
Number,” by Hank Jones, and “Simplicity,” by Al
McKibbon. They were clean and fast, and both drew from
Bud Powell in the drive and tension of their melodic
lines. They had lightness, character, inner purpose,
strength of design; they were good enough to make you
go home and listen to old records — by Powell, by
Sonny Clark, by the young Hank Jones — to find out if
jazz was really like this once. 

It was — even better in fact — and the trouble with
playing this way is how to do it without seeming
deluded and ultimately fatalistic. Mr. Charlap’s gigs
get around this problem with hard work and craft, but
more important because he seems less interested in
stylistic eras of jazz than its ever-relevant ideal of
melody and efficacy.

The process whereby an American theater song turns
into jazz fascinates Mr. Charlap; he’s a student of
these transformations, and has done it himself, with
songs like George Gershwin and Irving Caesar’s “I Was
So Young (You Were So Beautiful),” which came next in
the set, arranged simply as a ballad with brushed
drums. Because the song is basically unknown to jazz
audiences, he could pour his own style into it,
trickling out his phrases, making them sound like
vocal runs.

But with two better-known songs, “The Way You Look
Tonight” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” Mr. Charlap
took pains to make a statement with form. The first
was almost comically fast and frenetic, with layers of
different tempos for piano and drums. And the second
was super-slow, a set piece of counterintuition. The
song almost lost its recognizability and identity, but
that was the point. He leaned into his experiment,
taking the harmony apart and putting a quiet
semi-gospel arrangement on the song’s ending. 

In almost every case Mr. Charlap, with the bassist
Peter Washington and the drummer Kenny Washington
(they’re not related), used an arrangement to bracket
songs at the beginning and end, or to aerate them in
the middle. His arrangements are usually built on
short unison passages, and they never use a
splattering drum fill when a single hit will do. And
they’re almost archaic. (They didn’t seem so much this
way 10 years ago, when Mr. Charlap’s trio was just
beginning, and Tommy Flanagan, his supreme stylistic
model, was still alive and working.) But they’re
superbly scaled; they’re of a piece with the concision
and craft of the rest of the music. 

Simultaneous with the last piano chord of “It’s Only a
Paper Moon,” Kenny Washington struck the middle of his
cymbal once with the handle of his wire brush. In the
context of the set, it was enough, and a lot. 

The Bill Charlap Trio continues through Sunday at
Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz
at Lincoln Center, 60th Street and Broadway; (212)
258-9595, jalc.org.


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