Bill Charlap on 'Jazz in July'


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Next week, New York's 92Y will hold its annual Jazz in July festival at its 92nd St. and Lexington Ave. auditorium. What makes 92Y's jazz fest special is that pianist Bill Charlap serves as artistic director. In the tradition of Billy Taylor, Dick Hyman and other great musicians who have doubled as educators, Bill is as passionate about performing as he is about informing audiences about the music they've come to hear and see.

This year's festival includes six individual concerts focusing on the music of Hoagy Carmichael, Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, Dick Hyman, Sarah Vaughan and Fred Astaire. A few weeks ago, 92Y [above] asked Bill to write a little bit about three of the concerts he put together:

Here are Bill's thoughts on the Leonard Bernstein's New York concert, which will be held on July 23 at 8 p.m. [Leonard Bernstein, above, in 1967]...

“Electric, vital, intense, charismatic—Leonard Bernstein was all of these things. He enlightened us and inspired us. His passion for music and for humanity came through in all of his work, whether it was directing the New York Philharmonic, his work as a classical composer, teaching and sharing the joy of music, or writing for Broadway. Bernstein is New York, and New York is Leonard Bernstein.

“Bernstein songs are a unique challenge for jazz musicians. Unlike Gershwin, Bernstein wrote classical music before he ever composed theater music and popular songs. The influence of Stravinsky, Copland and Gershwin are there. Bernstein’s New York songs, particularly those from the scores of On The Town, Wonderful Town and, his crowning achievement, West Side Story, are filled with a melodic sensibility and rhythmic vitality. His compositions dance with the urgency of jazz and Latin music.

“This concert features some of my favorite musicians: Bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington have been my musical partners for over 16 years. Jimmy Greene [above] has developed into one of the finest and most creative tenor saxophonists of our time. Jon Gordon and I went to high school together, and his mastery of the alto saxophone, has been championed by such jazz giant as Benny Carter and Phil Woods.

“For 15 years, I was the pianist in the Phil Woods Quintet, and one of the great joys of that experience was sharing the stage with Brian Lynch [above], one of the great voices of the modern jazz trumpet. Brian is also an expert in Latin jazz and is a Grammy winner for his fine collaboration with NEA Jazz Master Eddie Palmieri. On percussion is Daniel Sadownick, who is recognized as one of the finest in jazz.  Sadownick and Kenny Washington have a tremendous musical connection and will create the rhythmic fire so characteristic of Bernstein’s music."

Here's Bill previewing The Man With a Horn: Music of Miles Davis concert, to be held on July 24 at 8 p.m....

“It’s noon on May 26. As I write this, the northwest corner of 77 St. and West End Ave. is being christened 'Miles Davis Way.' It's a fitting birthday tribute to an icon of all music—a man who always found his own way and in the process opened doors for all musicians. Miles was always at the forefront. In his early 20s, he played and recorded with the genius of modern music—Charlie Parker, who was like J.S. Bach. Parker, like Bach, understood everything that came before him and flung open the doors for every improvising jazz musician who followed.

“Miles absorbed Parker's innovations, but more importantly, he always sounded like himself. As overwhelming as Parker’s influence was, and as much as Miles idolized Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry, his inner compass simply wouldn’t allow him to become an imitation. He refused to play a false note, one that he didn’t feel, emotionally. His purity and depth made all of his musical choices honest and profound. From his earliest recordings, Miles’s singing lyricism was always a part of his playing. He had a sixth sense for recognizing and embracing the most important creative forces of the musical times in which he lived. He surrounded himself with the best musicians and inspired them to the apex of their creativity. [Photo above, from left, Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Duke Jordan]

“Miles also had a genius for finding and creating songs that were a perfect canvas for the improviser. When he played tunes like Dave Brubeck’s In Your Own Sweet Way, or J.J. Johnson’s Lament, everyone else started playing them. With just a few alterations, Miles could personalize the compositions of other musicians, the way he did with George Shearing’s Conception, which became Miles's Deception. During his period playing with Parker, Miles composed Donna Lee—bebop’s ultimate perpetual motion on the harmony of Indiana. And Miles's own compositions like Solar, Four and So What are as balanced as one of his beautiful trumpet solos.

“For this concert, I’ve been thinking about how the 'standard' repertoire for jazz musicians has evolved. An important part of what has become prerequisite material has been derived from the popular songs that Miles chose to play in his great quintets and sextets of the '50s and '60s. Songs like Someday My Prince Will Come, Bye Bye Blackbird, Cole Porter’s All of You, Richard Rodgers’ My Funny Valentine, Frank Loesser’s If I Were A Bell, Thelonious Monk’s 'Round Midnight, Victor Young’s Stella By Starlight and many others. In many ways, Davis is responsible for these songs becoming such an important part of the canon of American music.

“This performance will feature some of the most brilliant players in jazz today: trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore (in a rare New York appearance), alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. I'll also be at the piano. All of us have grown up with this music, and Miles’s conception will forever be a part of our musical universe. We'll hear these beautiful songs and innovative compositions played with love, in honor of Miles Davis—the man with the horn."

And finally, here's Bill previewing I Won't Dance: The Fred Astaire Songbook, to be held on July 31 at 8 p.m....

“So, what does Fred Astaire have to do with jazz? From my point of view, rhythm and dance are always central to the feeling of jazz. Rudolf Nureyev said, 'Astaire was not just the best ballroom dancer, or tap dancer, he was simply the greatest, most imaginative, dancer of our time.'

“But there was another part of Astaire’s artistry that is so natural it’s almost taken for granted. That's Astaire, the singer. His phrasing is so effortless and so emblematic of American singing, that it puts him in the same category as Judy Garland [above], Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. But there’s something even more extraordinary. The giants of American songwriting—Gershwin, Berlin, Kern and Porter—all wrote specifically for Astaire, and his performances of their songs are definitive.

“A short list of Astaire songs includes Steppin’ Out With My Baby, A Fine Romance, Night and Day, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off and A Foggy Day—and there are many, many more. Astaire’s imprint is indelibly intertwined with the songs he introduced, and his aesthetic surely influenced the current of American popular music. Whether he was singing or dancing, Fred Astaire could swing. He had the rhythmic sophistication and verve of a great drummer. Remember that scene in Easter Parade when Astaire is dancing around a set of drums and playing a solo with his hands and feet? Talk about multitasking!

“I’m excited to play these wonderful songs with my “dancing partner," the brilliant Renee Rosnes at the piano. We’ll also have the infectiously positive and swinging guitar of Bucky Pizzarelli. The rhythm section will be comprised of the virtuosic George Mraz on the bass and the ultra-tasteful Carl Allen on the drums. Clarinetist Ken Peplowski and trombonist Michael Dease—both masters of their instruments—will be our star soloists, and vocalist Sachal Vasandani will bring his own brand of elegance and warmth to this unique celebration of Fred Astaire."

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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