Bill Charlap Solo Show at Mezzrow Reveals Pianist’s Expansive Outlook

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Charlap crafted an object lesson in how to mine memory to elicit emotion, marry it to intellect and temper it with humor to yield a potent experience.

(Photo: Courtesy Bill Charlap)

Bill Charlap is a singularly vital figure on the New York scene, widely respected as an exponent of the trio format through his residencies at the Village Vanguard; as an accompanist through his Grammy-winning work with Tony Bennett; as an impresario through his production of the Jazz in July concert series at the 92nd Street Y; and as an educator through his directorship of jazz studies at William Paterson University.

But his solo piano outings in the city are rare, particularly in the relaxed environment of a small club. So his opening set at Mezzrow on Nov. 25, the first of a two-set, two-night engagement, constituted a true event. And he did not disappoint, applying his expansive outlook and encyclopedic knowledge to the demands of the solo format with as much rigor as he does to his other endeavors.

Drawing liberally on prewar standards, Charlap crafted an object lesson in how to mine memory to elicit emotion, marry it to intellect and temper it with humor to yield a potent experience. While he was unabashed in his reverence for the art of song — he remains a signal explorer at the intersection of melody and lyrics — he was as capable of irreverence as he was averse to self-importance in his approach to interpretation.

Certainly, he was given to touches of irony. Sliding into the basement club still bundled in winterwear, he was obviously in need of a vehicle to help him thaw from the frigid night air. But instead of warming up with something cozy, even seasonal, he conjured a nicely chilled “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.” His touch exquisitely icy, his lines powerfully restrained, he eased into the set with a nod to the night’s hard realities — and another to a day when the sun would shine again.

“Happy Thanksgiving!” he wished the tightly packed crowd, and they responded in kind.

If his treatment of “Sunny Side” was counterintuitive, it seemed an apt segue into an elegiac “Yesterdays.” Like most pianists, Charlap owes much to Art Tatum but, while he referenced Tatum’s famous take on the tune in his frilly flourishes, suggestions of stride and deployment of the six-note figure Tatum favored as a connecting device, he avoided the left-hand ostinato with which Tatum set the tempo. In fact, Charlap had something else in store: a series of closing glissandi so abrupt that they threatened to sweep away memories of any yesterday he had coaxed from the recesses of listeners’ minds. Even Charlap seemed startled at what he had unleashed.

With tension palpable in the room, he no doubt sensed the need for a release. And he obliged, eliciting from the audience a collective sigh as “Yesterdays” gave way to a version of “How About You” that was playful in the extreme. That, in turn, was followed by another change in tone courtesy of a “Mood Indigo” full of shadowy harmonies, Ellington-esque tremolos and a somber vamp that closed the tune and colored its mood a deep shade of melancholy, an emotion clearly felt throughout the assembled crowd.

Building on that communal feeling, Charlap effected a subtle but substantive shift in atmosphere yet again, turning an intimate concert setting into a kind of piano bar. “What would you like to hear?” he suddenly asked, prompting a request for the Charlap staple “Where Or When.” Without missing a beat, he launched a journey that few artists would be as adept at completing with such alacrity, fashioning on the fly a tripartite mini-set centered on passion.

In Charlap’s hands, “Where Or When” became a winding disquisition on déjà vu and the possibility of passion renewed, while “I Was Born In Love With You” loosed a cascade of notes so shimmering and brief as to suggest a passion quickly spent. “All The Things You Are,” meanwhile, seemed to proffer a set of musical parallels to passion’s many manifestations. Along the way, the piece, a Charlap signature, provided many surprises — among them, a slide into the verse so oddly placed that it produced a vertigo akin to one felt by those suffering true love.

But a bigger surprise awaited. Closing the set with a vintage flag-waver, “After You’ve Gone,” Charlap, in two impossibly dexterous yet eminently musical minutes, built up such a head of steam that, with the final chord, he blurted out a blunt wish that the tune’s sentiment would soon apply to a former president.

“For Donald Trump!” he exclaimed. Which raised the question: Could pianism in the service of politics be the next arena for this man of all musical seasons to conquer?

DB




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