In making his brief for Kipling, Randall Jarrell wrote of those oppressively mighty figures in politics and art upon whose leave-taking the world—”tired of being their pedestal”—gives “a great oof of relief,” only to elevate its own personage of equal weight. Jazz’s last Napoleonic (or Kipling-esque) figure was Miles Davis, and no one since has offered a plausible succession—certainly not Wynton Marsalis, whose musical impact withered in direct proportion to his aspiration. Yet if jazz no longer presents an orderly chain of command, it holds out the possibility of contrasting empires. During the past couple of decades, the best and largest part of jazz struck with teeming, clamorous urgency: the legacy of hard bop as multiplied by the avant-garde, fusion, and the swinging strut of recycled repertory. The net effect was to drown out, marginalize, and even belittle middle-aged fancies like Lyricism, Sentiment, and Nostalgia.
This was, more often than not, a good and necessary thing. The fragility of LS&N made it vulnerable to such horrifying mutations as New Age and Jazz Lite, and the talented middle-aged as well as the middle-aged young had their own enclaves and record labels where salutes to the sainted dead would always be welcome. For every Doc Cheatham or Ruby Braff, authentic sun gods, there were a dozen retired podiatrists ready to hit the stage—actually they were local pros who merely sounded like retired podiatrists. Mainstream exile was no more onerous than avant-garde door-money gigs and vanity labels. But lately, a renewed longing for the cooler precincts of melody and rhythm has become apparent, and not just in the fixation on blasé blonds and brunets with go-thither stares. It can be heard—not always, but often—in the music of Mark Turner, Stefon Harris, Dave Douglas, Ethan Iverson, Mark Copeland, Jason Moran, and Matthew Shipp, as well as inveterate downtowners like Roy Campbell and William Parker, among others.
LS&N is the territory mined by Bill Charlap, the 35-year-old pianist who has been playing prominent sideman gigs for more than a dozen years, but recently clicked with something larger than himself: the Bill Charlap Trio. With bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, two mainstays of the New York circuit whose résumés include time with Tommy Flanagan, he has over the course of three albums and several engagements, including a recent week at the Jazz Standard, created something more than a stellar trio. He has himself a band, a unit, a trinity larger than its parts. They are all throwbacks. Peter W., at 37, favors the low, Paul Chambers register and is not only content to play one note where a dozen could be squeezed, but to repeat the note and let it reverberate; his concise and pointed phrases do the work of the bass while maintaining a subtle, almost reticent interest in their own right. Kenny W., at 43, has similarly no need to show off his technique except in the finesse with which he employs it; he has listened to Jo Jones and Kenny Clarke, and his brushes have their polish, his sticks their crisp resolve—switching from one to the other, he jolts the group.
Charlap clearly enjoys listening to them and, having no need to show off his considerable technique, allows whole episodes to pass with the mutuality of a Count Basie rhythm interlude. On “The Nearness of You,” a slo-mo highlight of his new album, Stardust, the equitable mix gives the brushes a crackling, electric pizzazz; and on the bridge of the piano solo, Charlap suggests a phrase and lets the bass finish it. Conversely, on “Georgia on My Mind,” he sometimes follows the bass’s lead. One gets the impression that the three musicians are as intent on each other as on the tunes. That’s how it’s supposed to be and usually isn’t. Most trios are content to play the arrangement; when the leader solos, the others back him. Charlap looks to the others for ideas he can spin. His m.o. includes a second chorus, after the head, in which he seems to noodle for several measures, looking for ground on which to build. Although unlike Ahmad Jamal he is a linear player and unlike Bill Evans a laconic one, he has borrowed from both the idea of a fully interactive band, albeit in a less formalized version.
That Charlap presently records for Blue Note is itself interesting. He has absorbed a great deal of the history of jazz piano, including aspects—block chords, ripe melodies, dilatory tempos—that lead you to expect him to record for specialty labels like Chiaroscuro, Progressive, and Nagel Heyer, for which he has indeed made memorable albums, which include among their tracks two strangely romantic versions of the knuckle-busting “Donna Lee.” His breakthrough albums are on Criss Cross. The exceptional Souvenir (1995), with Scott Colley and Dennis Mackrel (an alert and sage drummer), opens with an assured Ornette Coleman blues, as if to obviate questions about how much piano he can play, then gets really interesting as he makes Benny Carter’s rarely heard “Souvenir” sound like an Alec Wilder standard; begins “Confirmation” as though fooling around, skirting the tune while prodding the changes (a “Donna Lee”-type cascade, a fillip from Monk’s “Criss Cross”—favorite tune? pun?), stating the theme only in the last 30 seconds for a Memento effect; voices “Godchild” with gracious, Mulligan-esque harmonies (his big break was in Gerry Mulligan’s 1988-90 quartet). An astonishing “Alone Together” opens with harplike a cappella arpeggios and evolves through Jimmy Rowles crushed chords; equitable interaction with melody, chords, and bassist; a chorus with a storming Tyner-esque left hand, leading to a crescendo and a skittering arpeggio that gives pause as Colley begins his turn.
All Through the Night (1997) introduced the Washingtons and is in some ways a more mature if less startling effort (he stamps Wilder’s “It’s So Peaceful in the Country” indelibly), but the trio’s rigors come to fruition on the two Blue Notes. I misprized Written on the Wind the first time around, hearing a cocktailish pithiness that, in light of Stardust and the Jazz Standard set, I now see as a core virtue in a stubbornly autonomous style that is at once beholden to and liberated from a ’50s aesthetic. This style is exemplified by “In the Still of the Night,” in which he refuses to hurry and finds his way from hesitant embellishments to puckish lightning-bug flight, winking in and out of the changes. He also makes “Blue Skies” romp, “One for My Baby” dawdle, and “Lorelie” twinkle the way they oughta.
One expects Charlap to know the jazz piano hierarchy from Wilson to Hancock. But what other young musician claims Jimmy Rowles, whose ironic fragments, touches of stride, closed chords, spare phrases, dynamic touch, and imperturbable patience he has assimilated; he lacks Rowles’s third-martini drolleries, but everyone does. Those qualities are evident in the imaginative accompaniment he renders Warren Vache in their duets on last year’s 2Gether (Nagel Heyer), an inspired jaunt for both, and an object lesson in distinguishing sentiment from molasses; with “Dancing on the Ceiling,” they attain conversational perfection—somehow the piano takes on a touch of the trumpet’s glimmer, auguring Vache’s perfect concluding note. On “Prelude to a Kiss,” Charlap’s rubato theme leads him to think Miles’s “Round Midnight” intro, which he cuts off with a tremolo—I’m surprised they didn’t start again, but it’s a funny, human, spontaneous moment. On the other hand, “Nip-Hoc Waltz” (ad hoc Chopin) justifies Charlap’s practice of leaving the composing to others.
Stardust should enlarge his audience; it’s the quintessential well-made album, the Hoagy Carmichael songbook augmented by four guests—all, like Charlap, shrewd economizers. No one will be surprised that Tony Bennett and Shirley Horn are in their element on comfortably protracted ballads. But when has Frank Wess had a better showcase? Humming “Rockin’ Chair” with a Ben Webster-ish croon, he blends with the trio to create a plush groove, articulated by four-to-the-bar cymbals; this kind of playing comes with age, and the sentiment is historical only to the degree that few people dare play with such modesty anymore. Jim Hall opens “Two Sleepy People” with a loose solo variation that ends with a crafty phrase for Charlap to extend; a contrapuntal passage may remind you of Hall’s two LPs with Bill Evans, but the net effect is quite different—a quietly jaunty chat between two self-possessed people at dawn’s early light.
Hall sat in for Charlap’s sold-out Wednesday set at the Jazz Standard and left the impression of playing a total of maybe 100 notes in the hour. Not that anything was missing. But if playing the bare minimum requires the same sense of adventure as kitchen-sink extravaganzas, then no one is more daring than this veteran guitarist who takes melody seriously enough not to overdress it; you get the feeling he’d rather unplug than play an unnecessary note. On tunes like “Without a Song” and “Blue Skies,” as well as solid originals by Hall (“Bon Ami,” “All Across the City”), they sparked polite dissonances and contrapuntal discourses that never descended to faux classicism. Refreshingly, Charlap didn’t call a single song from the new album—they would have worked as well, but how novel that he wasn’t thinking commerce.
In that regard, it’s a pleasure to report that the renovated Jazz Standard is, along with the recently renovated Iridium, the best thing to happen on the club scene since the long-ago spurt of venues that produced Fat Tuesday’s, Sweet Basil, Seventh Avenue South, Lush Life, Carlos 1, Greene Street, and others—all gone. The sound and lighting are superb, the sight lines are unimpeded, and the menu (high-end barbecue, if that isn’t an oxymoron) and temper reflect the involvement of Danny Meyer, the restaurateur, who insists his employees act like they’re glad to see you.