Heartfelt Songs From the Unsung


Though Monk was the first pianist to delight me and Bud Powell the first to thrill me back in the ’60s, from the moment I heard Bill Evans’s introduction to “On Green Dolphin Street” on Miles Davis’s Jazz Track, I identified with him. For a while I feared it must be because he was white, and that may have been part of it. But I think the real reason I had dreams where it was me waiting my turn after Miles, Cannonball, and Coltrane was the illusion Evans created of tapping voicings and rhythms already there on the piano, waiting to be beckoned by anybody’s fingers. What drew me right away was his swing, the ease and momentum of his phrases as they crossed bar lines, or pulled up short of them. Evans’s reputation as a rhythmic weakling would seem to be based entirely on appearance—the rhythm was in his hands, nowhere else on his body.

In his duets with tenor saxophonist Houston Person on You Taught My Heart to Sing, it’s as if Bill Charlap is dreaming he’s Bill Evans. Without the wiggle of Charlap’s arpeggios on the quietly stunning “Where Is Love” (an urchin’s ballad from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! twice misidentified as Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway’s “Where Is the Love” in the track listings), the lineage might never have occurred to me—it certainly hasn’t been obvious on Charlap’s sedate Blue Notes, or how could I have missed it? You want more evidence? Consider the melodic tolling reminiscent of Evans’s “Peace Piece” on “Where Is Love,” the curving grace of Charlap’s theme statement on the title track (a McCoy Tyner ballad worthy of Sondheim), and the spareness and depth of his voicings behind Person throughout. For all of that, the strongest likeness is in Charlap’s rhythmic self-sufficency: Forgoing bass and drums has lured many a pianist into fussy rhapsody, but here’s one instance where it reveals unsuspected strength. I’m guessing Charlap finally feels comfortable exposing Evans’s influence because he’s fully absorbed it. Never at all imitative, he’s announcing that he’s entered the same league.

You Taught My Heart to Sing is the most buoyant program of tenor-and-piano duets since Zoot Sims and Jimmy Rowles’s 1977 If I’m Lucky, whose opening number was Buddy Johnson’s “(I Wonder) Where Our Love Has Gone,” Person and Charlap’s closer. Torchy ballads like this beauty introduced by Arthur Prysock with Johnson’s orchestra in 1948 still tempt Charlap to cliché (Evans knew to avoid them), and the Person original that precedes it shows he’s still unsure of himself on the blues. Fortunately, the gently emotive Person, to whom such material is second nature, is there to save the day.

Since the late 1960s, first on Prestige and then on Muse and its successor HighNote, Person has been churning out albums like the ones Gene Ammons used to make, all featuring tough-tenor riffs and strong-man-hides-his-tears ballads—the sort of stuff you used to hear on jukeboxes in black neighborhood bars. Satisfying as these have been, together with his many recordings in support of the late Etta Jones, such workmanlike affairs typecast Person as strictly grits-and-gravy. But his discography also includes two circa-1990 Muse albums, limber duos with bassist Ron Carter that were close to what you and I keep wishing Sonny Rollins would do. On another surprising duet LP, released in 1984, he almost persuaded the introspective pianist Ran Blake to play the dozens after deadlocking him in chess.

There’s more to Person than his limited reputation suggests, and Charlap knows how to draw it out of him—if this lovely encounter with a younger “name” doesn’t bring Person wider recognition, nothing can. Person’s approach to ballads hasn’t changed all that much, but the pellucid setting capitalizes on virtues his more typical releases take for granted, beginning with his gift for implying harmonic variation through sensitive melodic embellishment and subtle manipulation of timbre. Along with that song from
Oliver! (the show from which Jay-Z sampled “I’d Do Anything” from, kids), Person and Charlap also redeem Leslie Bricusse’s “If I Ruled the World,” from Pickwick—Dickensian treacle came as part of the bargain with the Zombies, Kinks, and Julie Christie during the 1960s British Invasion. Person is so much like a crooner on this you can practically tell the consonants from the vowels in his lovely delineation of the melody— forget Ammons, he’s in touch with Prysock, Billy Eckstine, and other bygone black-tie balladeers. The only track where he leaves me wanting more is “Where Are You,” and then only because Ben Webster owns the song in perpetuity and nobody beats Ben Webster on a ballad. Not even Houston Person at his most transcendent.

Person is the quintessential Muse/High Note artist. For upwards of 20 years, until Joe Fields sold the catalog and started over again with HighNote and Savant in the early ’90s, Muse (itself a spawn of the short-lived Cobblestone) issued a steady stream of organ combos and other product that seemed geared to service radio formats and a jukebox trade that no longer existed, as if the label’s raison d’être was to make sure Sonny Stitt got paid for another few dozen blowing dates before he blew his last. But Fields, whose background was in sales and promotion, proved receptive to the ideas of independent producers like Don Schlitten and Michael Cuscuna, so from the beginning there would also be the occasional Jaki Byard or Lester Bowie. Fields has continued this policy with his current labels, for which Person and others, including drummer Cecil Brooks III, effectively double as contract artists and staff producers. In addition to providing safe landing for performers dropped by majors (Arthur Blythe, Wallace Roney, Frank Morgan, Steve Turre), HighNote is also becoming a home for side projects dear to the hearts of musicians still on major rosters, like Charlap (granted, Person produced You Taught My Heart to Sing) and pianist Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus.

Billy Hart Quartet, a stunner that might set your brain and pulse racing more than you want in this summer heat, features a band that started off as Iverson’s before he, bassist Ben Street, and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner unanimously voted Hart leader in recognition of his seniority and the sizzle and spread of his beat. Though the ear is drawn to Turner as the only horn—it helps that he’s in top form, simultaneously cerebral and hard-charging—Hart earns his billing by following the drummer’s creed and dedicating himself to making everyone else sound good. One way to do this is by synching accelerations and suspensions of tempo to a solo’s modulations, and Hart’s quick response time on his own “Lorca” is a bracing example. His pieces tend to elicit the CD’s most stirring and dramatic performances, but two tunes in everybody’s fakebook are given novel, diametrically opposed twists: Turner opens Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” with an alarming fly swatter of an overblown low note, the theme appearing in recognizable form only at the end, whereas on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” the theme is stated thrice with only slight variation, which takes up over two minutes and tricks you into believing that’s all there’s going to be the rest of the way. Then the fun begins, with Turner and then Iverson orbiting the highest intervals of Parker’s changes for five minutes and no recapitulation of the theme at the end—except in your head.

Roy Haynes was famous for being underrated so long he’s now a little overrated. Hart, who’s been around since the early ’70s, when he was one of the drummers on Miles Davis’s On the Corner, is merely underrated. Congrats to his younger bandmates if Billy Hart Quartet helps make him famous for it.