Simultaneously gentle and mesmerizing, pianist Bill Charlap’s opening salvo at the start of his second week at the Vanguard was an earthy journey through calming themes that carefully broke the stillness. He riffed on “There’ll Be Another Spring” and “Bad and Beautiful” before demonstrating he can play with considerable bite and velocity; this soothing opener, however, played as a duet with bassist Peter Washington, was rare, sweet lyrical poetry.
His current Blue Note album is a fresh yet sturdy approach to the songs of George Gershwin, whose music came in only at the close of the 80-minute set that journeyed through a host of textures and tempos and hit a hot spot with Sondheim. Charlap punched his way through the over-recorded “The Way You Look Tonight,” using a fleet and fractured approach that will be familiar to fans of Stan Getz. On Sondheim’s “Uptown Downtown,” from “Follies,” he amplified its capacity to vamp along as a boogie — a surprise treatment emanating from Charlap’s fingers.
There’s an overriding politeness in his music that eases its digestion. While he does dig up obscurities, there’s no getting around the fact that he’s playing songs from two and three generations ago — pieces by Benny Carter, Jim Hall, Hoagy Carmichael and Barry Harris made it into Tuesday’s set. He has reinvigorated many dusty and forgotten treasures and stands as the reigning champ among modern romantic jazz pianists. It has all been done, however, to service a faded American musical past. With his chops and taste, it seems like a no-brainer that he could enter the contempo world and take it by storm; here’s hoping it happens soon.
Charlap returns to New York Nov. 8 to accompany his mother, Sandy Stewart, for a weeklong run at the Oak Room at the Algonquin. Their first record together, “Love Is Here to Stay” on Blue Note, was released two weeks ago.