At age 10, Bill Charlap attended an event at the Friars’ Club, a New York show-biz institution. Charlap was the precocious son of the Broadway songwriter Moose Charlap (who wrote most of the music for the Broadway musical Peter Pan) and the noted cabaret singer Sandy Stewart.
During the Friars’ Club event, the youngpianist managed to buttonhole the great songwriter Jule Styne, a family friend, and earnestly asked him, “What’s the secret of a great pop song?” Styne thoughtfully replied, “A great popular song should be melodically simple and harmonically attractive.” Then Styne, with a characteristic lack of false humility, illustrated the point with one of his own tunes, “Just In Time.”
Charlap told this story as part of a pre-concert discussion, a half-hour before his Saturday night show at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 9. Holding forth in a classroom off the main lobby, Charlap then played a bit of “Just In Time” on the piano, demonstrating how the song’s three-note motif—simplicity itself—is repeated and developed over an attractive sequence of chords, each adding more interest and depth to the song.
If you were a fan of the great songwriters who made their bones in New York, you couldn’t do better than Charlap’s concert with the theme “Broadway to Harlem.” For the sold-out show in the Rose Theater, the largest of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s three venues, Charlap brought an exceptional all-star group: singers Cécile McLorin Salvant and Freddy Cole, tenor sax master Houston Person and clarinet virtuoso Ken Peplowski, along with Charlap’s exceptional trio with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington.
Charlap won a Grammy award earlier this year for his album with Tony Bennett, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Columbia/Sony Music). His trio’s critically acclaimed latest album, Notes From New York (Impulse!), was released this month.
The selections for “Broadway to Harlem” made the case for New York as the melting pot in which the Great American Songbook was born. As Charlap explained, the intent was to “equally celebrate the great theater writers and the great African-American songwriters who didn’t have the same opportunities within the mainstream of American musical theater, but were major contributors to the entire sound of American popular music.” As an example of the music’s cross-pollination, Charlap pointed to the profound blues influence heard in the songs of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.
Charlap and the trio began with a sparkling rendition of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “Put On A Happy Face” from Bye Bye Birdie, showcasing their telepathic rapport after 20 years together. He then introduced 84-year-old Cole to sing two of Cole’s favorite songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, “It Could Happen To You” and “Polka Dots And Moonbeams.” Cole captivated with his smooth, less-is-more style—half storytelling and half swing.
Peplowski joined Charlap for a bracing reading of the 1918 classic “After You’ve Gone,” written by African-American songwriters and vaudevillians Henry Creamer and Turner Layton. Charlap and Peplowski’s speedy but relaxed reading evoked Benny Goodman’s hit version, with Peplowski playing Goodman to Charlap’s Teddy Wilson.
Eubie Blake’s haunting “Memories Of You” began with Charlap’s rubato solo establishing an elegiac mood; Peplowski followed, playing it straight but with gorgeous embellishments and a mellow tone.
It all seemed like a warm-up for McLorin Salvant, whom Charlap introduced as “the best thing to happen to vocal jazz in 20 years.” She then proceeded to earn the accolade. The rangy melody of Cole Porter’s ballad “All Through The Night” showed off both her rich low register and uncannily precise high notes.
The real showstopper, however was Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” a duet with Charlap, which she delivered as a piercing dramatic monologue. It was a perfect rendition of the notoriously difficult song; one can only hope she records it.
Tenor sax elder statesman Person joined McLorin Salvant on stage to perform “Some Of These Days,” written in 1910 by Shelton Brooks, an African-American songwriter and rehearsal pianist. The song could be considered one of the first crossover hits; drenched in the blues, it was made famous by the Jewish-American vaudeville superstar Sophie Tucker. It concluded with the immortal line, “You’re gonna miss your big fat mama/Some of these days.”
Person played a moving duet with Charlap on the ballad “You Taught My Heart To Sing.” Written by McCoy Tyner with a lyric by Sammy Cahn, it is a perfect, unusual marriage of jazz and Tin Pan Alley. Person, a master of improvisation, had nothing to prove, playing the melody simply and feelingly with his warm, expansive tone.
Other classic tunes followed: the Billy Eckstine blues, “Jelly, Jelly” sung by Cole; two stride piano classics—Fats Waller’s “Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now” and James P. Johnson’s “The Charleston,” both featuring an effervescent Peplowski; and the eclectic Mclorin Salvant singing Erroll Garner’s “Misty” and a clever, rapid-fire arrangement of Bernstein and Sondheim’s “I Feel Pretty” that reclaimed the West Side Story classic for the jazz canon.
Introducing Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” the first of several Ellington tunes, Charlap quoted Ellington from his autobiography, Music is My Mistress, recalling a conversation with George Gershwin in which Gershwin confided that he wished he could have written the bridge to “Sophisticated Lady.”
Charlap used the song to showcase the art of the trio, with Charlap and the Washingtons executing cleverly choreographed rhythmic shifts, leading to a breathtaking piano cadenza.
Other Ellingtonia included “Prelude To A Kiss,” and “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” both featuring Cole. On the latter, Person’s sax solo—elegantly structured, unforced and hip—was the perfect complement to Cole’s relaxed swing. For a finale, the full company romped through the Joe Williams barnburner, “Well Alright, OK, You Win.”
All night long, Charlap, the most generous of hosts, quietly—sometimes almost surreptitiously—stole the show through brilliant accompaniments and eloquent asides. One image of him lingers: hands poised over the keyboard, then pouncing on the beat, grinning.