Thursday, February 3, 2011

Pianist Bill Charlap Plays Iron Horse with Guitar Trio Thursday, February 10th at 7PM. By OWEN McNALLY, Special to The Hartford Courant

Pianist Bill Charlap, an inventive improviser with an exquisite touch and a profound understanding of the Great American Songbook, leads his trio Thursday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, Mass.

Charlap's high art of the piano trio, both in memorable live sessions and on his blue-chip Blue Note Records masterworks, has long featured the pianist in tight, interactive collaboration with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington.

Although the Grammy-nominated pianist appeared with that familiar trio lineup last winter at the Iron Horse, he's back for an encore with a different instrumentation of piano, guitar and bass, featuring Peter Bernstein (below) on guitar and Sean Smith on drums.
A smart, sensitive player whose empathy is as expansive as his technique is wide and deep, Charlap won't be affected in the slightest by the harmonic clashes that sometime arise when two chordal instruments, here piano and guitar, wrestle for textural dominance.

As irrefutable proof of Charlap's knack for harmonious collaborations even in the most intimate bonding of chordal instruments, there is his most recent and elegant Blue Note release, "Double Portrait." It features him in a classy duo piano partnership with his wife, Renee Rosnes, an exciting pianist, composer and a master modern jazz practitioner in her own right.

With two virtuosos at separate pianos with 88 keys apiece, for a total of 176 keys in play in seemingly infinite combinations, the possibilities for clattering keyboard collisions are, mathematically speaking, quite dizzying.

Despite the potential for keyboard chaos, clarity not clutter is this famous jazz piano playing couple's pristine, coherent signature sound.

With their two distinctive and distinctly different styles happily wedded in this performance, they generate coherent orchestral textures with their totally in-tune, harmonic sophistication; bright contrapuntal conversations, brassy, hornlike single-note lines and seamless, in-sync phrasing. Their challenging repertoire features three American Songbook standards, covers of tunes by Lyle Mays, Wayne Shorter, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gerry Mulligan and Joe Henderson, plus one Rosnes original.

Instead of the proficient but mechanical sound that sometimes afflicts even the brightest all-star piano duos, the Charlap/Rosnes alliance, without compromising its classically high standards, generates some real emotion,

On George Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now," for example, the mood is elegiac, a lyrical expression of sorrow. Each of the four individual notes that state the song's four-word title is wreathed in museful melancholy.

But the very next tune, the Dietz and Schwartz classic, "Dancing in the Dark," is a pure joy, a jazz pas de deux as perfect as a flawless routine by Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers. Only here, the two pianists cohere so fluidly and are so seamlessly in step with one another that it's hard to know when one leads and other follows.

Part of Charlap's seemingly effortless way at the keyboard and natural sounding, wide-sweeping emotional range may well be accounted for, at least in part, by the fact that, as a child prodigy, he grew up in a household totally immersed in music.

His father, the late Moose Charlap, was a Broadway composer and songwriter whose credits included the scores to "Peter Pan," "The Conquering Hero," Whoop-up," "Alice Through the Looking Glass" and "Kelly." His mother, Sandy Stewart, is a popular song singer who performed with Benny Goodman and starred on TV's "Perry Como Show" and earned a Grammy nomination for her hit single, "My Coloring Book" by the noted songwriting team of Kander and Ebb.

Early in his career, Charlap appeared as an emerging sideman in Hartford, including an impressive showing with his then boss and mentor Phil Woods in the 1990s.

In another memorable local appearance in 2002, he accompanied Joel Frahm, the noted, New York-based tenor saxophonist from West Hartford, on one of Frahm's periodic triumphant returns to Hartford in a concert at Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Charlap's alliance with Frahm that night marked yet another empathetic pairing for the fine, flexible pianist, one that should have but hasn't yet been preserved in a recording studio.

Charlap, who began picking out tunes on the piano at age three, studied with jazz pianist Jack Reilly and classical pianist, Eleanor Hancock. Informally, he picked up pointers from the great jazz pianist and keyboard savant, Dick Hyman, a distant cousin on his father's side.

Well-known composers and musicians regularly dropped by the Charlaps' Manhattan home to socialize or talk about their craft or the music biz.

Speaking of the impact his musically privileged childhood had on his adult success, the pianist told The Courant in an interview in 2002:

"Sure it was great to grow up in a house full of music. It was nice to know my parents musically, to see my dad composing. But you know it was one of those things that you just take for granted when it's happening.

"I didn't recognize my father, who died when I was only 7, or my mother as being special or unusual because of their musical skills. Maybe sometimes I did as I got older. But it was just great having that kind of energy, that kind of creativity around. It was very inspiring."

Along with natural gifts and a nurturing environment, Charlap's success is also rooted in plain-old fashioned hard work.

After dropping out of college after two years so he could focus totally on the piano, he set a grueling regimen for himself, a commitment necessary no matter how much talent you start out with, who your parents may be or how much music you've heard since infancy.

Here's Charlap on how that necessary commitment can completely and, in a way, gloriously absorb your life:

"I would just wake up in the morning and start playing. The next thing I knew, it would be midnight. I had taken the most inexpensive apartment I could find, a fifth floor walk-up, and rented a piano. I put acoustical foam up on the walls to soundproof it and just played all day."

Before his big Blue Note triumph — which some may have mistakenly thought of as an "overnight success story" — he had labored long and hard and learned from mentor/bosses like Mulligan and Woods.

Pianistically, all that fervent woodshedding paid off big time.

Charlap's crisp, articulate touch, robust sense of swing and knack for the well-turned phrase, clarity, vitality and expressiveness have elevated him into the jazz pantheon alongside such Old Masters of elegance, luminous tone and swing as Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan.

Tickets for the Iron Horse concert: $22.50 in advance, $25 at the door. Information: 413-586-8686 and online here.

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