Jazz in July, the annual summer event at the 92nd Street Y, kicked off a seven-performance series with “Somewhere — The Songs of Leonard Bernstein,” a program celebrating the legacy of showtunes composed by the conductor and teacher. The concert revealed both a heady display of hot turbulent jazz statements and a savory blend of exuberance and romantic longing from vocalist Kurt Elling.
“West Side Story,” the classic 1957 tuner due for a Broadway revival next season, was heavily sampled. Pianist Bill Charlap, beginning his fourth season as the series artistic director, led the way with a bright staccato-paced take on “America,” braced by the flavorful trumpet designs of Brian Lynch and some sturdy but less-than-inspired reed offerings by Jimmy Greene and Jon Gordon.
The real truth of Bernstein’s emotional thrust was revealed in “Maria” and “Somewhere,” both with lyrics by Steven Sondheim, and a buoyant “Lucky to Be Me,” from “On the Town,” with words by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Elling stays preciously close to the melody line with some interesting jazz phrasing.
Guest pianist Ted Rosenthal brought a boldly structured stride flavor to “The Jet Song,” peppered with little familiar quotes that led to the “Wrong Note Rag” from “Wonderful Town.” He also offered a poignantly poised “Lonely Town” from “On the Town.” All three pieces defined the pulse and heartbeat of Gotham with the intrinsic creative jazz sense that was a part of Bernstein’s vast scope.
Charlap loves theater songs. His fiery Latin take on “Mambo,” in a boiling arrangement by Lynch, was fueled by timekeeper Kenny Washington on drums and the steely plucking of bassist Peter Washington. Again, Gordon and Greene failed to add fuel to the fire, but Lynch blew with heightened zeal.
The series continues next week with Charlap’s “Jazz Samba” on July 29, with Harry Allen and Claudio Roditi; a tribute to George Shearing featuring Freddie Cole on July 30; and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” with Carol Sloane, Frank Wess and Russell Malone on July 31.