Sunday, August 22, 2010

Charlap Steps Out

Bill Charlap is special. Here's a performance that glories in melody. Billy Strayhorn's tune, originally found on Duke Ellington's 1957 album "Such Sweet Thunder," is stated with minimal embellishment by the pianist; his gorgeous touch and judicious use of space tell the story. Deep improvisation is beside the point, yet only a seasoned jazz player could have pulled off this performance with such taste and grace. Knowing what not to say, becomes the mark of genius.
Charlap's surrounded here not by his regular trio mates, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, but by bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Bill Stewart in a group dubbed the "New York Trio" to distinguish it from the Washington-based crew. And once again I'm made aware of how extra special Charlap sounds when stepping out on the Washingtons. Piano trios don't come any tighter, but I find Charlap's usual trio too constrained, too formal. (Charlap's admiration for Oscar Peterson may express itself more fully in the airtight group concept, rather, thankfully, than in Charlap's own playing.) Kenny Washington knows his hard bop lexicon backwards and forwards, but, to my ears, he's not the most sympathetic of percussionists, particularly in this setting. Whitney Balliett would use the word "pinioned" when describing overly rigid drummers, and that's the adjective that always springs to mind when I hear Kenny W. with Charlap. I much prefer the pre-Washington albums that Charlap made with other rhythm teams, including "Distant Star," "Souvenir" and "Along with Me." Those recordings display a sense of relaxation and expansion that went noticeably missing when Charlap hooked up with with the regular crew.

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