A different path
by Piotr Michalowski
When I listen to younger jazz pianists, I sometimes wonder if the instrument does not have too many keys. Most of them have prodigious technique developed by many years of classical training, and many of them take their cues from showy virtuosos of the past. They love tradition and have absorbed lessons from their favorite pianists, concentrating on rhapsodic precedents such as McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and especially Bill Evans in the later phase of his career. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, and one's reaction to such playing is simply a matter of taste. The jazz piano tradition is varied enough that there are many approaches to the music. There are, however, some younger mainstream pianists who have different tastes, and who have distinguished themselves by following a somewhat different path. Among these, my favorite by far is Bill Charlap.
To be sure, Charlap appears to have listened to every major jazz pianist, and he references them in his playing, but he is no one's disciple, and he does not imitate. He eschews the rhapsodic excesses that are currently much too common, and seeks out new melodies, often sparse, that illuminate and extend songs. In writing about his work, most reviewers mention the influence of Bill Evans; it is there, of course, but I think of two other pianists when I hear his music: Jimmy Rowles and Ahmad Jamal. It seems to me that the former taught him how to play with melody and harmony in a wry, sometimes playful manner, and the latter provided him with ideas about rhythm, space, and the virtues of silence.
Charlap likes strong melodies, which is why he records standards, but he also appreciates more modern composers such as Ornette Coleman. In the context of the trio he will often reduce his playing to a minimum, allowing the bass and drums to carry much of the weight, only to come back dramatically with a new, jagged melody
of his own that takes it all in a new direction. It never sounds like Jamal, but the idea is certainly there.
Charlap comes from a musical family and began playing at an early age. His parents were involved with popular music his father as a Broadway composer, his mother as a singer and he grew up immersed in the Great American Songbook. His professional career has been stellar: he began with a stint as Gerry Mulligan's pianist and graduated to leading his own trio and being, for the last decade, a member of Phil Woods's combo. He has appeared as a sideman in more than fifty recordings, and his own sessions have won much critical acclaim.
None of these prepares us for his Kerrytown Concert House recital on Friday, December 10, where he will appear on the stage alone, without the usual support. As far as I know, he has not been to our town before, and this should be a jazz piano delight.
[Originally published in December, 2004.]