In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I pay tribute to Bill Charlap, my favorite living jazz pianist. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
Will jazz ever become popular again? I claimed in this space eight years ago that “the audience for America’s great art form is withering away.” I still fear for jazz, though I also believe (as I did then) that it remains creatively vital. The problem, I argued, was that its transformation from a dance-based popular music into “a form of high art…comparable in seriousness to classical music” inevitably alienated many once-loyal listeners, who turned instead to less complex, more immediately engaging styles of pop music….
That’s why it’s such good news that younger jazz musicians like Robert Glasper, Ethan Iverson and Kamasi Washington are integrating today’s pop-music styles into their playing, just as Miles Davis, Gary Burton and Pat Metheny assimilated rock in the ’60s and ’70s. But postmodern fusion isn’t the only way to expand the jazz audience. Jazz instrumentalists can also follow the hugely successful example of singers like Diana Krall by embracing the American songwriters of the pre-rock era, whose appeal remains undiminished to this day. That’s what Bill Charlap does—and nobody does it better.
Born in 1966, Mr. Charlap played piano for Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods before starting his own trio in 1997. Today he’s a major name in his own right, touring constantly (he’ll be performing in Boston, Sarasota, Tokyo and Tucson in January) and cutting an album a year. Uptown, Downtown, his latest Impulse CD, came out in September to universal acclaim. His admirers include Tony Bennett, who tries to poke his head into New York’s Village Vanguard and sing a song or two whenever Mr. Charlap is in residence there, and Maria Schneider, jazz’s top composer-bandleader, who once described him to me as “one of the few mainstream pianists out there who really moves me—he plays standards with such love and honesty.”
That’s Mr. Charlap’s trademark. He quarries the Great American Songbook for gems, some familiar (“The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else,” “There’s a Small Hotel”) and others obscure. “Uptown, Downtown,” for instance, is named after a Stephen Sondheim tune that was cut from the score of “Follies” before it opened on Broadway in 1971. He comes by his taste for standards honestly: Moose Charlap, his father, wrote the score for Jerome Robbins’ “Peter Pan.” At the same time, his jazz pedigree is impeccable, and he has an identically sharp ear for overlooked jazz originals…
No matter what Mr. Charlap plays, he does so with a warmly singing tone that puts you in mind of the noted vocalists whom he likes to accompany whenever his crowded schedule permits (one of whom, Sandy Stewart, is his mother). It’s no surprise to learn that he knows the lyrics to every song in his vast repertoire. His pellucid balladry, especially at the super-slow tempos that he relishes, is nothing short of exquisite—but whenever he dives head first into an up-tempo flagwaver, he leaves you in no doubt of his ability to swing hard….
* * *
Read the whole thing here.
Bill Charlap plays an unaccompanied solo version of “Blues in the Night,” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, at the Jazz Open Stuttgart in 2002: