After years of being singers’ accompanist of choice, as well as illuminating various groups including Phil Woods’ or Keter Betts’, Bill Charlap has leaped into the jazz spotlight as one of the best-known pianists recording today. By playing what he loves best, standards from the American songbook despite his astounding ability to fit into the feel of any group in which he performs (check out his aggressive work on "Cheryl" on Brian Lynch Meets Bill Charlap) Charlap has step by step built a reputation as one of its primary modern-day interpreters. Of course, his background has much to do with that, considering his immersion in the arts throughout most of his life. But also, Charlap has an innate understanding of the value of the music, not mere songs, but parts of oeuvres that characterize not just the songwriters, but also American life in the twentieth century. Beyond Charlap’s sensitive interpretation of standards, he thinks about the meaning of the music, rather than playing it only. Some of his interviews and "Before And Afters" prove that Charlap is can articulate not only notes, but also words, with absolute precision. So when Charlap talks about his latest exploration of important twentieth-century composers, Bill Charlap Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul, he says things like "if anyone had vision, it was George Gershwin. He was very much ahead of his time as a writer of melodies and harmonies. Within his lifetime, his songs were a bridge between musical theater and jazz." And Charlap, through his music and his words, causes you to consider Gershwin from yet another perspective. A composer with vision. That makes a lot of sense, especially considering how much Gershwin accomplished in only 38 years of life. His works are still a marvel to musicians and listeners. And Charlap is perceptive about this fact as well: "Gershwin’s music is designed for interpretation and reinterpretation. We will never run out of ways to play and arrange his songs." And you know what? Just in the past few months, even more Gershwin recordings have been released Mark Masters’ Ensemble and Clark Terry’s/Jeff Lindberg’s/The Chicago Jazz Orchestra’s Porgy & Bess and they are all different.
While Charlap’s focus remains his extraordinary trio, one that is gaining as much renown as those of any other jazz trio, on The American Soul, Charlap has arranged horn parts and recruited four premier horn players to expand his musical palette: Phil Woods, Frank Wess, Slide Hampton and Nicholas Payton. Though Charlap invited guests to appear on his Stardust CD, including Wess, on The American Soul Charlap has integrated the horns into his own vision. True enough, Charlap starts the CD with a trio version of "Who Cares?", which is breezy and inviting. But the breadth of the Charlapian intentions appear on the next track, "Somebody Loves Me," which the horn players play with spirit and gentle accents and cascading lines, as Charlap interjects rippling piano commentary and pounces when least expected during the rests.
Obviously, Charlap is comfortable playing with all of the musicians on the CD, and he is generous enough to allow some of his revered mentors to shine. The American Soul isn’t so much a pianist’s album as a statement made by a pianist through a fuller spectrum of musical voices. Some of the highlights of the album are Wess’ gorgeous rendition of "How Long Has This Been Going On," full of pain and urgency though unhurried wordless expression of the lyrics. And Woods’ reworking of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" is, in a word, inimitable. No one has a tone like his or can capture a listener’s attention with just a single chorus (consider Billy Joel’s "Just The Way You Are") or a single phrase as he bends notes of fills an anticipated rest with a flurry of notes outlining the modulation. Even when Charlap solos on "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," he employs darker tones, despite the apparent simplicity of his straightforward interpretation, that add weight and meaning to it. As always, Charlap considers a composer’s entire career, including surprising forgotten songs like Hoagy Carmichael’s "Jubilee" or Bernstein’s "Ohio." On The American Soul, the rediscovery that Charlap presents to us is Gershwin’s iridescent gem of a ballad, "I Was So Young," certainly consistent with the emotional outreach of Gershwin’s music but somehow overlooked by his more popular songs.
Starting with his trio, broading into a septet and then ending with a solo, Charlap completes his examination of Gershwin’s music by tentatively playing "Soon," not as the up-tempo song that some groups adopt, but as a brief rubato study in chord changes and human meaning inherent in the music, a chiming final chord bringing down the curtain on Gershwin’s compositions representing The American Soul.