Bill Charlap is one of the few players making sure jazz isn’t a four-letter word in today’s musical climate. He’s a friendly player — a throwback with a modern edge, a pianist with a love of Broadway melodies and linear solos played with simpatico support from his longtime bassist and drummer.
Charlap’s latest album on Blue Note, the inveterate jazz label that has spent more time promoting Norah Jones, Van Morrison and Al Green than any of its instrumentalists this year, is an attempt to fit the music of Leonard Bernstein into the jazz vernacular. It doesn’t quite fit, and Charlap seems to know it’s a bit of a mind-bender; it’s far easier for an audience to get its arms around tunes from Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.
Opening night of a five-night stay at Catalina celebrated the masters who created the Great American Songbook, with a few pure jazz numbers — a spry reading of Gerry Mulligan’s “Rocker” and an emotional, hit-you-in-the-heart rendition of Jim Hall’s “Bon Ami” — thrown in. The music neither crackled with explosivity nor settled into benign cocktail-jazz territory. Instead, this was a first-rate jazz band treating an audience to a first-rate night of thoughtful, romantic music.
By occupying ground that doesn’t bring attention to technique, Charlap echoes the work of the late brilliant Memphis pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., who shed ornamentation as he aged and opted to become a master of the mid-tempo. Charlap’s steadiness, like Newborn in the early 1960s, is his brilliance; the solos he proffers are tasteful and flavorful, the song selection rooted. The only misstep came on Peter Washington’s overly speedy and out-of-place solo on the ballad “Last Night When We Were Young.” Otherwise, they made the point there isn’t another working trio like this one anywhere in jazz.
Charlap plays the Empire Center at the Egg in Albany, N.Y. on Jan. 16.