Bill Charlap Pays Homage to Leonard Bernstein with 'Somewhere' on Blue Note Records


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One of the surprising things about jazz pianist Bill Charlapís Somewhere, his third release on the Blue Note label, is that it hadnít come along sooner. The album title commemorates the final track of this trio recordingóa set of jazz interpretations on the music of Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein, perhaps the most famous and revered musical figure ever produced in the United States, was a conductor, composer, and pianist who bridged the worlds of classical and pop musicówriting ballets, operas, symphonies and legendary Broadway musicals like West Side Story with equal aplomb. Clearly, Leonard Bernsteinís musicósophisticated, graceful and invitingófinds the perfect home in Charlapís artful fingers. Indeed, Whitney Balliettís comment in The New Yorker that, “In almost every number, regardless of its speed, [Charlap] leaves us a phrase, a group of irregular notes, an ardent bridge that shakes us," applies equally well to Bernstein. But the connections go deeper. As the pianist himself puts it, “Bernstein represents the theater, the classical establishment, America, andómore than anything elseóNew York."

Critics have described Charlapís style variously as hard swinging, romantic or rigorous, but his musical roots can be found in a childhood home filled with songs and songwriters. His father, Moose Charlap, was a Broadway composer, known especially for his work on Peter Pan. His mother, Sandy Stewart, is a singer who, forty years ago, had a hit with the Kander and Ebb ballad, “My Coloring Book." Houseguests often included legendary figures from the great American songbook.

“It was a unique experience," he remembers. “A lot of great songwriters were friends of my parents. My mother was doing demo records for composers like Jule Styne and Meredith Wilson and Richard Rodgers. Composers and lyricists such as Charles Strouse, Yip Harburg, and Marilyn & Alan Bergman were part of my formative years."

After attending the New York High School of Performing Arts (of Fame fame) and studying with jazz pianist Jack Reilly, classical pianist Eleanor Hancock, and jazz great (and distant cousin) Dick Hyman, he went on to collegeóbut only temporarily.

“My classical foundation was very important, of course," he now says. “But the conservatory atmosphere was getting in the way of my jazz studies. Pianist Bill Mays and I had struck up a friendship and one day he said, ĎWhy donít you come up to my place? Iíve got a Fender Rhodes set up and we can play duo pianos.í After we played he said, ĎListen, Iím going to be leaving Gerry Mulliganís band, I think youíre ready to replace me.í I didnít think I was, but I went to Gerryís place and auditioned, and we hit it off very well. Mulliganís famous line was, ĎI shot for 42nd Street and ended up on 52nd.í And there is something about that I relate to." Both artists had arrived in Jazz Alley via Broadway song.

Charlap was on his way. He has been influenced, he claims, by every musician he has ever worked with, including the members of his current trio, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington (no relation). The list includes such stellar jazz artists as Benny Carter, Clark Terry, Jim Hall, Frank Wess, Grady Tate, Phil Woods and Tony Bennett. But he has also been influenced by his motherís singing ("Her phrasing influences the way I play melody. In many ways I approach the song from a singerís perspective, music and lyrics are of equal importance"). Charlapís influences reflect the seriousness with which he has studied the entire jazz lineage. “I admire the elegance of Tommy Flanagan, the harmonic language and bebop phrasing of Hank Jones, the linear aspects of Lenny Tristano. Then there are Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Jimmy Rowles, Errol Garner, Thelonious Monk, Ellis Larkins, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron, Roger Kellaway, Bobby Timmons, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland. People usually think of Bill Evans as a harmonist and romantic, but Iím influenced by Bill the bebop player, the rhythm section player he was when he worked for Miles. But Iím also influenced by non-pianists, like Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Coltrane, Miles, Wayne Shorter and Chet Baker.

“I try not to think about the piano per se," he reveals. “Iím not interested in bravura displays. Melody is the most sublime of all the utterances. Harmony is an emotional response. Rhythm is physical. Melody is an intuitive response that carries both the emotional and the physical."

Which brings us back to Bernstein. “One of the fascinating things about Bernstein is that he wrote a symphony before he ever wrote a popular song," Charlap explains, “so he came from the other side of the tracks. He was a great conductor and composer, and the first American to be accepted by the European establishment. His music is very Ďthrough composed,í not like the blueprint youíll get with Kern or Porter or Berlin. Like Sondheim, his accompaniments are very well constructed, which can be an asset but also a curse. You donít want to just stick to what was written, you want to find your own way, yet you want to be informed by what the composer has done. Because heís such a literate composer, Bernstein gives you a certain feeling from the first two bars. Think of ĎCoolí or ĎLonely TowníĖ they create a spiritual dynamic right from the beginning. He goes to places that other composers do not, because they were toiling in a different soil.

“His music also speaks to me and to my generation because it was a part of our childhood. My contemporaries have a direct connection to West Side Story in a way that perhaps they donít to Oh Kay or Kiss Me Kate. These are part of my history, but when you deal with Bernstein you touch something that we have all grown up with, like the Beatles. It is very powerful."

That power is conveyed with unmatched musical eloquence by the Bill Charlap Trio on this milestone recording. Listen to the opening “Cool" from West Side Story, with its jaunty rhythms and bluesy turns, and the rich, haunting lyricism of “Lonely Town," from On The Town. Sample the buoyant swing of “Itís Love," the frenzied drive of “Jump," the melancholy undercurrents of “Glitter & Be Gay," the Afro-Caribbean flavor of “America." Charlap approaches each song with loving appreciation, throwing new light on “Itís Love," “Some Other Time," “A Quiet Girl," Big Stuff," “Ohio" andóin a solo performance of extraordinary sensitivity and harmonic sophisticationóthe poignant “Somewhere."

Bill Charlap and Leonard Bernsteinótwo masters at the top of their formómake this an unforgettable musical experience.

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