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Bill Charlap's jazz traditions 

Reinventing the past with piano

When Bill Charlap brings his luxurious New York-based trio to Raleigh on Saturday, Triangle jazzheads will be treated to the ultimate primer on American Popular Song. Between Hillsborough Street and Western Boulevard, a retro-roadmap of musical Americana will emerge out of the ether. The audience will skip happily down Tin Pan Alley and bath in Broadway neon. George Gershwin will share a table front and center with royalty, Duke Ellington. And depending upon the prevailing mood, Charlap's economical piano may conjure up strains of standards composed by other luminaries like Leonard Bernstein or Hoagy Carmichael. There'll be plenty of stardust to go around.

Charlap, an emerging jazz star, had no choice but to become a musician. It was in the stars--and in the genes. Old-timers remember the crisp black and white image of singer Sandy Stewart, Charlap's mom, from The Perry Como Show of the '60s. His dad was composer Moose Charlap, whose credits include Peter Pan. In the family's Manhattan apartment, music was as omnipresent as oxygen.

Accordingly, Charlap's latest pair of CDs examines the Great American Songbook with equal parts respect and passion. The American Soul (Blue Note) toasts composer Gershwin with energetic trio interpretations supplemented by cool horn charts. Meanwhile, Love is Here to Stay (Blue Note) is simply the vocal record of the year, a frighteningly intimate duet between a mother and her favorite pianist, her son. Stewart's careful vibrato and Charlap's intuitive accompaniment comprise the ultimate hand-in-glove configuration.

Charlap spoke with me on the phone from his NYC digs last week. He talked in measured tones, weighing words with care. When necessary, he demonstrated his thoughts on piano and on one occasion, reached for a book to retrieve a favorite quote. As you will discover, Charlap's beautiful music is serious business. And because of this, you just gotta believe that the future of American Popular Song is in good hands.

Independent: Was it difficult to make a record with someone with whom you share so much personal intimacy--your mom?

Bill Charlap: Oh no. On the contrary, it was very easy to do. We just played some of the material we had been performing together. That's all.

I love the way you often underplay as accompanist. On Love is Here to Stay, I can hear you steering you mother at times--and I hear you reacting to what she's singing. What makes a great accompanist?

There are many things: an empathy with the singer, a knowledge of the lyrics, a paring down of the harmony to that which is essential. An ability to follow, but--as you imply--the ability to lead subtly. Intuition, instinct and experience come into play. It is essential to be intimate with the song. One needs to know the melody properly and all the harmonic possibilities. You want to make the right musical choices.

Is it different accompanying your mom than any other singer?

Yeah, I think so. Most children grow up to the sound of their mothers' voices lullaby-ing them to sleep. But in my case, my mom happens to be a great professional singer. She embodies my original relationship to music. So accompanying her is very easy, very natural and organic.

Your dad died when you were 7. How much do you remember about the atmosphere around the house when he was alive? Do you remember the parties, perhaps? What was the vibe?

I remember many things. I remember sitting next to Charles Strouse at the piano and talking to him. There were always visitors, including lots of composers and lyricists: Yip Harburg, Marilyn and Alan Bergman. I remember sitting in the basement and hearing dad play Ravel and Respigghi. He admired great artists and great culture.

I remember my father's energy and what it took to become a professional composer, his ability to come up with music on the spot. Someone might call and say: "We need a song that's going to move along the second act. The secondary character is going to sing it. Now, she doesn't have much of a vocal range. [Snaps fingers] It has to be something that works as a pop song as well, because Buddy Greco is going to record it next week. It must also work as a dance number to connect acts 1 and 2. [Hurriedly] And I need it by 6:30 today. Bye [laughter]." That was the kind of energy that was around the house.

As a musician, how much are you a product of nature or nurture?

I just wake up as me, a combination of both--and a product of my own hard work as well.

In jazz, there's an established tradition of musicians touring alone--and then picking up a local rhythm section at each stop. You, however, travel with the same bassist and drummer [Peter and Kenny Washington] every night.

We're a band. We're like a family. We grow together. We have an intuition about each other. As with many good groups, we had that intuition right away, the first time we ever played together. In fact, All Through the Night [Criss Cross], our first record, was also the first time we had ever played together as a trio. You can actually put it on and say, "There it is." We noticed that something special was happening immediately.

It's an unusual sentiment for an instrumentalist, perhaps, but you seem to value the importance of both the music and lyrics of a song as you perform it. Is that the influence of your mother, a singer?

It's the influence of my mother and father and the fact that I love singers and songs. The lyrics inform the entire conception of the instrumental. It is the way that I hear things.

Here's an example. When you learn a Beethoven sonata, you don't learn only the left-hand or only the right-hand parts; you learn everything. If you really want to learn the music, learn it thoroughly.

Did you ever go through a rock and roll period? Did you ever buy a Farfisa organ? Did you ever shave your head?

[Laughter] No to the Farfisa organ. No to the head shaving. But I grew up around all kinds of music and I played in rock bands when I was a kid. I played in jam sessions with electric guitars and music with fewer chord changes. I also played Broadway show tunes and classical music. It was all of one piece, all part of my musical upbringing. I'm 39 years old; I didn't grow up wearing a suit and tie.

Do you listen to hip hop or other contemporary pop music?

Not really, but I do not dismiss anything from the pop music world just because it's pop music. I keep my ears open to contemporary jazz and some contemporary classical. After a certain point you start burrowing into the music that means something to you. And that's enough.

You shouldn't spread yourself too thin--is that what you're saying?

Not really. There's nothing thin about where I'm at. In fact, it's very thick. There's a long way to go to get deeper into the music.

How does your preparation and approach differ from solo gigs to jobs with your mom or [saxophonist] Phil Woods or your own trio?

They differ in the obvious ways, but they are also absolutely the same. They are all about listening. Even when I'm playing alone, there's a little voice that keeps whispering: "Don't forget to listen."

If you're introduced to someone at a party as "Bill Charlap, the jazz musician," is that a proper description?

Sure, it's a very honorable thing to be. Then again, there's that Duke Ellington adage that you shouldn't let anyone categorize your music. There's someone who has addressed this in a more eloquent fashion.

Here's a quote from [pianist] Bill Evans, who was asked if he minded being called a jazz musician. "Hell no," he said. "I think jazz is the purest tradition in music this country has had. It has never bent to strictly commercial considerations, and so it has made music for its own sake. And that's why I'm proud to be part of it." Good answer.

How much are you composing?

Not at all.

Is that likely to change?

Probably not. By the time he was my age, George Gershwin had already composed, oh ... a lot [laughter]! If I were going to be a composer, it's likely I would have composed something by now.

Some would say that as a solo is played, an improviser is actually composing music on the spot.

Maybe. But I still think the composer is the one who sees the entire boardwalk. An improviser walks down the boardwalk and pauses, saying "I'm going to play a game with this child over there" or "I think I'll buy a hot dog over here"--and then proceeds. The composer knows the boardwalk start to finish; the improviser is merely exploring the terrain.

The Bill Charlap Trio plays Stewart Theatre on the N.C. State campus Saturday, Oct. 29. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28 reserve seats, $23 general admission. There is a pre-show discussion with writer and saxaphonist Owen Cordle at 6:45 p.m. in the Walnut Room of Talley Student Center.

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