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Music Review: The Bill Charlap Trio – Live At The Village Vanguard

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It may seem strange for a guy who usually writes about power pop, singer-songwriters, or soul reissues to review a CD by one of the hottest pianists in jazz today.  But I do have a small collection of jazz CDs, with an emphasis on bebop quintets, vocalists singing standards, and piano trios.  So while I may not be able to discuss tonal palette or harmonic invention, I know the difference between, say Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, even if I can't always put it into words.

A few years ago a friend slipped me a copy of the Bill Charlap Trio's Somewhere: The Songs Of Leonard Bernstein and became an instant fan.  Having grown up in a Broadway-loving household I was already familiar with many of the songs, and I loved what Charlap, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Kenny Washington did with the material.  His melodic instincts and tone were perfectly suited to songs like "Lonely Town," "A Quiet Girl," and "Somewhere."

May 22 saw the release of Charlap's first live album, Live At The Village Vanguard, and, like everything else I've heard him do, it is quite remarkable.  Recorded in September 2003 at the venerable New York jazz club, the CD shows Charlap and his longtime sidemen, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington in fine form, running through nine songs with precision and beauty. 

The trio's versatility is on full display here, and they tear through Rodgers and Hart's "The Lady Is A Tramp" at a breakneck pace with plenty of humor, then caress the hell out of Harold Arlen's "It's Only A Paper Moon."  Arlen is represented three times on this set, and it not hard to see why.   His bluesy melodies are perfect starting points for Charlap's solos, romantic and lyrical in the ballads, hard and swinging in the uptempo numbers.

Charlap famously prefers standards to more experimental fare, which makes sense given his background (his mother is veteran cabaret singer Sandy Stewart – they have recorded an album together), and six of the nine songs here should be familiar to any fan of the great songwriters of the era between World War I and World War II.

Of the other three numbers, two of them, "Rocker" and "Godchild" show his debt to the late, great baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan, who wrote the former and arranged the latter on Miles Davis' seminal 1957 album Birth Of The Cool.  The other number, "All Across The City," is by guitarist Jim Hall and was originally released on Intermodulation, his 1966 duet album with another great pianist, Bill Evans.

For a musician to record a live album at the Village Vanguard, he knows he is treading on sacred ground, as many of the greatest names in jazz history, including Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Wynton Marsalis have recorded there.  With Live At The Village Vanguard, The Bill Charlap Trio doesn't quite reach the legendary status of those great albums, but it doesn't fall far from the mark.

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