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Interview: Bill Charlap

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New York's 92Y will be holding its 31st annual Jazz in July series from July 21 to 30—a festival that runs six nights over two weeks. The festival's artistic director for the past 11 years has been pianist Bill Charlap, whose warm personality and impeccable technique makes these concerts feel as if you've been invited into his living room when his friends are over.

This year's lineup of concerts includes Benny, Basie and Bucky; Bill and Dick [Hyman]'s All-Star Jazz Party; Duke Ellington: Drop Me Off in Harlem; Sondheim & Jazz Essay; Swing a Song of Sinatra and Piano Icons: From Jelly Roll to Oscar. For more information and tickets (they're going fast), go here.

Intrigued by the Piano Icons: From Jelly Roll to Oscar concert, which will feature Bill teamed with pianists Marcus Roberts and Jeb Patton playing standards composed by legendary piano greats, I spoke with Bill about the event and the art of jazz piano:

JazzWax: The jazz standards composed by great jazz pianists are not only melodically recognizable but also reflect their individual personalities, yes?

Bill Charlap: Absolutely. Songs by pianists like James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Marian McPartland among many others are certainly memorable. But they're also fingerprints of who they are and their aesthetic choices. The pieces that pianists Marcus Roberts, Jeb Patton and I plan to play are iconic, but they’re also keys to understanding who these musicians were and the variables that shaped their approach. Whether it’s Erroll Garner’s Misty or Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby, each song remains a singular expression of the artist and his or her art.

JW: How do you keep a concert like this from becoming a collection of impersonations?

BC: It’s not repertory. We don’t intend on approaching the music so the songs sound the way they do on the original recordings. Instead, they will be informed interpretations, meaning, we are cognizant of the artists' performances but we're intent on making our own statements. Of course, it’s impossible not to be aware of the recordings. They are part of the foundation that we have used to assemble our own individual styles.

JW: So the jazz pianist is really in constant communication with himself and with the historic body of jazz piano recordings, yes?

BC: This gets to a larger point—that there’s no such thing as outsider art in jazz. A musician must be connected to the greater river of experience to make a fresh statement and remain credible. All piano greats had earlier pianists they admired and whose approach wound up in their own styles. Just like you hear Oscar Peterson in Herbie Hancock and Fats Waller in Art Tatum, we’re all connected to each other. In Marcus Roberts, you hear Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, Thelonious Monk and Jelly Roll Morton. In Jeb Patton, you hear Cedar Walton, Sonny Clark and Red Garland. It’s who we are.

JW: So there’s really no definitive version of any one song, is there?

BC: That’s right. Remember, even the pianists whose songs we plan to play changed their original versions over the course of their careers. Garner didn’t play Misty identically each time any more than George Shearing played Lullaby of Birdland the same or Evans played Waltz for Debby identically. In the case of Evans, the original version of Waltz for Debby first appeared on his New Jazz Conceptions in 1956. It was a fully wrought piano composition of just one single chorus. When Evans recorded it later, he changed the key and the framework to open it up for his new trio, using the earliest version as a blueprint.

JW: A bit tougher than a straight-up impersonation.

BC: Finding your voice as a pianist when taking on the works of these artists is a deeper challenge in some ways than simply playing a song the same way the composer did. I never try to play solely in another artist’s style when performing a song. Instead, I use that style or recording as the basis for my own articulation. There’s a natural sense of who we are that comes through when we interpret other artists’ music.

JW: Will you be playing music by female piano greats?

BC: Yes, of course. 

JW: Interestingly, most people don’t really associate too many standards with Marian McPartland or Mary Lou Williams, do they?

BC: Both wrote beautiful songs. We all know this one [plays the introduction to McPartland’s Piano Jazz radio show, which is known as McPartland's Kaleidoscope]. That introduction is a direct reflection of who Marian was as an artist and a person—her elegance, imagination and her brilliant technique.

JW: To perform these standards with artistic authenticity, is it essential to think about the composer’s motives and personality?

BC: To some extent, but that's only part of the complete picture. It’s always good to know as much as possible about the artist, so that you’re informed. But in this regard, performing is more like acting in a play. The performer doesn’t have to know everything about the playwright to effectively interpret the dialogue in a script. What's more important for the actor is to bring something of himself or herself forward so the part takes on a new life and has fresh meaning.

JW: And yet it’s impossible not to think of Erroll Garner when you hear Misty. What part of his personality comes to mind?

BC: Misty is a beautiful song. It’s very much a ballad in the tradition of great jazz writers like Tadd Dameron. Misty is in some ways is a cousin of Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now. Misty also is emblematic of Garner’s romanticism. Dizzy Gillespie once said that Garner was our most sanctified pianist. What he meant was there’s a real spiritual, gospel feel in Garner’s playing, and an incredible joie de vivre.

JW: What will Marcus Roberts and Jeb Patton bring to the concert?

BC: Different perspectives. Marcus and Jeb both have a vast knowledge of the music and it's history. But each has his own articulation, attack and approach that will create contrasts between the three of us. It has to do with the syntax of the music, which is the touch, the time, the nature of the line and the way harmony and rhythm are used. We all speak musically, but in our own dialect. Marcus has a strong, wonderful sense of depth and soulfulness to his playing and a profound understanding of earlier piano styles and his own particular way of developing within the rhythm section. Jeb is a swinging, linear player and a bebop master, and he also has a great understanding of the jazz piano lineage. They both are artists with a great deal to say.

JW: Have you picked the songs yet?

BC: Not all of them. I will talk to Jeb and Marcus soon to figure out what they’d like to play and in which configuration. There will be solo piano, piano with our rhythm section—master bassist Todd Coolman and the brilliant drummer Willie Jones III—as well as piano duets. It’s going to very exciting.

JW: Many people think jazz musicians just sit down and start doing their thing, yet the results always sound like you must have rehearsed for months. Is it the former or the latter here?

BC: As jazz musicians, we’ve disciplined our craft to the point that we’re able to play on the fly as much as possible. We don’t plan it out in advance, but we’ve trained hard for years and we speak the language of music. So we have a full box of tools at our disposal that lets us leave plenty to chance. That’s where the excitement of jazz happens. We speak the language so we’re able to sit down at the piano and not over-think. We can just listen and express. That comes from having complete command of the syntax.

JW: Are you as amazed as audiences at what happens? Or is this just another day at the office for you?

BC: Not at all. I view this as a gift that I don’t take for granted. No jazz musician takes the gift for granted. It’s on loan. It’s not something we own. As custodians, we have to treat this gift with care. We study and develop the gift so it develops upon itself. The bottom line is there’s a great deal of preparation for a concert like this.

JW: How so?

BC: If I’m going to perform Bill Evans’ Very Early, it’s not the kind of composition that I’m just going to sit down and play without preparation. It’s much more demanding, harmonically, than many more conventional chord progressions. I will likely practice a piece like that, but not in the sense of trying to achieve a finite version. This kind of practicing is so I can discover and remind myself where the opportunities exist to explore different musical ideas during a performance.

JW: What exactly will you discover during your run-throughs of Very Early?

BC: I may discover places where I will want to go in concert, bringing my point of view to the piece. If I’m improvising a line, I may hear it going one way but I may want to take it someplace else. This is renegotiating a line while you’re playing it and not knowing the final outcome. What’s joyous for me is renegotiating a line while I’m performing live. This only happens when I’m listening to everyone else playing around me and to myself. That’s when art takes over. I’m often as surprised and exited by what happens as the audience is. That’s the magic.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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