A day late for piano maestro Bill Charlap’s 50th birthday, I’m posting an uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2001, a conversation for the jazz.com website in 2008, and a piece I wrote about Bill this year for Jazziz.
Bill Charlap (Blindfold Test):
1. Earl Hines, “My Buddy” (from HINES ’74, Black and Blue, 1974) (5 stars) – (James Leary, bass; Panama Francis, drums)
[IMMEDIATELY] It sounds like Father. Probably quite a bit later. It’s lovely. It’s perfect. Four billion stars. He’s a genius of modern piano. Certainly, if not the first, one of the first rhythm section players. So much is implied in what he plays, and there’s so much space. He’s thinking about a lot more than just playing the piano per se. The song is “My Buddy,” of course. He just played a solo introduction, and now we’re with the rhythm section. It’s absolutely beautiful. Perfect music. I don’t have anything to say about it. I can’t identify the bass player and drummer. [How do you recognize Earl Hines?] The freedom. It’s wild. It’s fun. It’s so about playing time and… It’s just that it’s so feeling. It’s non-pianistic things on the piano, yet it’s still quite pianistic. It’s very gutsy. I mean, besides the technical things, of course; the voicings, the type of linear things he’s doing, the ways he’s using the tremolos and arpeggios, all that sort of stuff that we would call style. But it’s sort of beyond that. It’s just grooving like mad. I wonder if he told the drummer to play it as sort of a Bossa Nova — it’s sort of a funky Bossa Nova. The drummer reminds me of someone like Eddie Locke or Connie Kay, but I don’t think it’s either of them. It sounds like someone in that area. That is the spirit of jazz, through and through. It’s beyond style. He could play with anybody in any style, and it would work.
2. Herbie Nichols, “Too Close For Comfort” (from LOVE, GLOOM, CASH, LOVE, Bethlehem, 1957/2001) – (5 stars) – (George Duvivier, bass; Dannie Richmond, drums)
Of course I know the song; it’s “Too Close For Comfort.” I’m not sure who the pianist is. There’s echoes of Duke and echoes of Jimmy Rowles, but it’s neither. And I can’t place the pianist. Obviously, there’s a lot of Hines in this player. I keep hearing things that I know. It’s on the tip of my tongue. It’s obviously based in a stride-oriented style, because the things are voiced and the way he’s thinking about basslines, it’s very clear that he — or she — is very cognizant of the movements. Once again, I don’t know who the bassist and drummer are. There’s a beautiful feeling to it. It’s got that little bit of recklessness I like a lot. A lot of blood and guts. You got me. It’s all feeling. It’s all music. 5 stars. [AFTER] Ah, that’s the next thing I was going to say. There were a few things I heard in there, and I’m used to hearing Herbie play his own music, of course. I noticed modernist tendencies along with more stride-oriented and earlier piano style things going on. That was absolutely the next thing I was going to say. I have this record; I haven’t heard it in a long time. There’s perhaps playing of his that might be clearer than that, and a little less of just getting down and having fun playing and more of really making a musical statement, a particular statement. There’s playing of his I think I appreciate more. But just for the sheer feeling alone, that’s jazz.
3. Dave McKenna, “I’ve Got The World On a String” (from GIANT STRIDES, Concord, 1979) – (5 stars)
[IMMEDIATELY] “I’ve Got The World On A String.” That’s McKenna. I leaned forward, because at first I thought it was two pianists, which is interesting, ,because there’s so much definition between his left hand and right hand. Listen to that. What’s accompanying? And he’s really singing the melody. The funny thing about Dave is that you don’t think of him this way, or I don’t hear it talked about, but it’s almost like he has the type of pianistic command of someone like Chick Corea. You’ll hear him whip off some things getting right to the bottom of the keyboard. It’s perfect. I wish I had something enlightening to tell you, except that Dave McKenna is a genius. The man is a walking melody. That’s as great as solo piano playing has ever been. He is a complete original, and he’s exquisite. 5 stars. Another remarkable thing about Dave is that it’s almost as if he was fully formed when he hit the scene. Not to say that his playing didn’t grow. It got deeper and freer. But the first album he made, it was all there. [AFTER] Dave is his own extension of the whole tradition, too. There’s a lot of Stride thinking there. He’s hearing the whole bass line. He’s hearing the whole band. And the piano is a whole band, even if you’re dealing with… I’m trying to pick the right words. In stride piano, and even before that in ragtime, you had the bass line, which was like a tuba player; you had the chord, which might be like a banjo player, and you had the top part, which might be a horn player of some sort. The same thing happens all the way through the development of piano playing, even in someone like Tommy Flanagan or Bill Evans. Because you’re still sort of covering the entire orchestra on the piano. Those are my favorite kind of pianists, who think that way.
4. Bill Evans, “Who Can I Turn To? (When Nobody Needs Me)” (from THE LAST WALTZ, Milestone, 1980/2000) – (5 stars) (Marc Johnson, bass; Joe LaBarbera, drums)
[IMMEDIATELY] Sure sounds like Bill Evans. Yeah, it’s Bill. I mean, there were things he was doing rhythmically which right away were him. I don’t know the song. [You’ve recorded something by the composer.] Now, wait a minute. No-no, I know the song. He’s just not playing the melody. “Who Can I Turn To?” It was his own melody on it. It’s Bill with Eddied Gomez, of course. No!? Is it Marc Johnson? Well, you can certainly see Eddied’s influence on Mark in the way he entered. He was all over the bass and playing a lot of contrapuntal things. Something tells me this is not Bill Evans-authorized. There’s an awful lot of stuff of his that came out after his death, as happens with a lot of jazz artists, which I have mixed feelings about. Of course, I love to hear it, because I want to hear their work if I can. On the other hand, gee, I wouldn’t want stuff of mine coming out that I didn’t feel was my best work. Now, I don’t think he can do anything that wasn’t worth more than anything could buy. An artist like this can’t do anything that doesn’t have a very high level of worth. But do I think it’s maybe his very best playing on record? No. It’s not. And I don’t think he did either. It doesn’t matter. It still towers over any lesser artists. Listen, it’s his language. He developed this original language. That’s what it’s about. McKenna’s got his original language. Earl Hines has his.
One of the very first things I thought, particularly from the intro, is that Bill is the real meaning of what a fusion musician is, to me. What I’m talking about is how… There’s a couple of things that are misunderstood about Bill. First and foremost is that he was a bebop piano player first, that he was a linear pianist, and it’s not just about impressionism and beautiful chords. But the other thing is that Bill is, in essence, putting together everything from romanticism and impressionism on the piano, and sort of everything from jazz piano up to the point of Bud Powell and Jimmy Jones and George Shearing and some others who Bill was growing on, without question. And Detroit, I think. I hear some Hank and some Tommy; Tommy is a contemporary. But if you want to figure out how Bill Evans learned how to do those things with his left hand where he’s sort of playing a rubato introduction to something like “Who Can I Turn To?” (not so much on this record, but perhaps if you listen to “Town Hall”), all you need to do is go to the Brahms Intermezzos. Go to the Intermezzo in A-major, and that’s where Bill’s left hand was coming from. But you take the harmony of French impressionism, Ravel and Debussy, and you put that all together with everything that happened in jazz, and you have the true synthesis of the Romantic piano literature, the European Classical piano tradition and composition tradition, and Jazz, put together in perfect balance in Bill. That’s to me what Bill represents. And of course, Bill is a composer, so you can’t separate that.
He recorded this piece throughout his life, actually, with Tony Bennett and also on… No, I’m sorry. I’m hearing Tony in my head because Tony had a hit record on it. No, I don’t think he did do this with Tony. Or maybe he did, and it was just released as an outtake on Rhino. But Bill did that at Town Hall as well, and I have a bootleg video from a London television performance with Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker of Bill doing “Who Can I Turn To?” So that was a staple of his repertoire for many years.
5. George Shearing, “Memories of You” (from THE SHEARING PIANO, Capitol, 1956/2001) – (5 stars)
I don’t know who that is, but it’s beautiful already. Oh, it’s gorgeous! Mmm, it’s just gorgeous. That’s the original chord. That’s Hank, I think. No? Whoever it is has taken some very nice lessons from Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, and is doing some interesting harmonic things that are unlike some of the things you’ll hear from those two. Of course, it’s “Memories Of You.” Eubie. Wait a minute! It’s not Teddy. No, it’s got to be somebody after. There are harmonic things that are not from Teddy’s language. But some of the linear things, without question, are highly influenced. You’ve got me on this one. I’m not sure who it is. But it’s lovely playing. There are things that are so reminiscent of Tatum going on sometimes, but I’m not getting the feeling of a TIDAL WAVE of information that I usually get from Tatum that’s staggering, it’s almost as if you must come up for air after one performance. But whoever it is certainly loves him. Beautiful touch, beautiful playing. That’s great solo piano playing. 5 stars. [AFTER] No kidding! [Probably the reason you didn’t know it is because it’s an unissued track.] I have that record. That’s perfect piano playing. Perhaps if you had played me something of George which was from a later time period, it would have been easier to pick.
6. Geri Allen, “Move” (from Ralph Peterson, TRIANGULAR, Blue Note, 1988)
I don’t know who this is. I imagine it’s somebody younger. I really enjoy the spirit of this. However, there are things that I find about it that it loses my attention relatively quickly, within the third chorus or so. There’s a lot of pianism going on, a lot of drumming at the piano, a lot of things… It’s getting more and more busy now. but I’d like to hear a deeper rhythmic and melodic language and perhaps a little more discipline. [LAUGHS] I would never say anything is not good. This person is expressing themself in music and making a statement, and I appreciate it, and depending on the mood I’m in, I may be either quite moved by it or not interested in it. But instead of giving this a low number of stars, I’d rather just say it’s not my cup of tea. [AFTER] This for me is not dealing with the actual piece enough. I think it’s using the piece as a vehicle for a particular type of expression, but for me it’s out of balance. I have this record, by the way, and I have enjoyed it. But that’s just the mood I’m in today.
7. David Hazeltine, “Days of Wine and Roses” (from THE CLASSIC TRIO, Vol. 2, Sharp Nine, 2000) – (Peter Washington, bass; Louis Hayes, drums) – (5 stars)
Beautiful touch, beautiful piano playing — already. Somebody is playing “Days of Wine and Roses”. Interesting. Oh, yes. Well, this wasn’t recorded in the 1950’s! The harmonic language dips into a lot of different things right away. But you know, you’ll get surprised with somebody like Hank. He’ll just play everything. But that’s not who this is. I believe this is a younger pianist, maybe somebody closer to my age.. Though I’m not sure when I hear something like what he just played. It’s great piano playing. Not to make this just about me, but when I listen to piano playing like this, I so appreciate it, I so know that I can’t hear something harmonized in that way, because it becomes chords on the melody as opposed to something that makes the melody first and foremost to me. Like, when he gets to “days of wine and RO-ses,” that’s a key moment in the lyric, in the melody, that what he did harmonically, for me, obscured the peak of the line. I just couldn’t hear it. My inner ear won’t go there. This is a guess. Brad Mehldau. Okay. Really a guess, because I don’t really know his playing well. I just heard a very lovely touch. I do, however, find this harmonization quite intriguing. It’s a nice way of balancing the strong harmonic points of this song with perhaps some other colors. So I could see that, too. I’m a Libra. I end up always seeing both sides. There’s nothing I can do about it. I keep hearing things I recognize, but I can’t place. I will say personally that this performance wouldn’t be a huge hit on my list, because for me it lacks a bit of focus, and though it has a lot of warmth and expressiveness from the players, it’s taking a little too long to get to the point for me, and the point is not absolutely clear. [Any notion who the bassist and drummer are?] No. I keep hearing things I recognize. Well, what I hear is touches of McCoy Tyner, though I know it’s not McCoy Tyner. But whoever it is has embraced a bit of McCoy’s language. There are ways that he plays mordants(?) and some of the linear language. [BASS SOLO] Oh, that may very well be Peter. [LAUGHS] I heard some Peter’s language. [ON FINAL REHARM OF THEME] Now, wait a minute. That’s not David Hazeltine. That isn’t what I’m used to hearing from David. David is one of my very favorite pianists out there, really on the top class of people in our age group — he’s a bit older. But I’m used to hearing David play something with perhaps a little bit less of a freewheeling way of using space. I suppose that’s one of the things he did for the Japanese? [Sharp-9] I see. And the drummer is probably Farnsworth or Louis Hayes. I think I have that record. But again, what you heard right away was a wonderful harmonic sense, a beautiful touch, very fine piano playing. And perhaps a much cooler and more spacious way of playing than I’m used to hearing from David. But I love his playing all the way around. I’ll give him five stars for being such a great musician.
8. Walter Davis, Jr., “Skylark” (from SCORPIO RISING, Steeplechase, 1989) (5 stars) – (Santi DiBriano, bass; Ralph Peterson, drums)
Somebody is playing “Skylark” and somebody has a C-extension. It’s funny. Something about the simplicity of the voicing reminds me of how Roberta Flack plays the piano. I like it. A lot. See, I’m very attracted to thing that are complete, and have a very clear focus and a statement to make. This is very pure, very simple harmonically, very beautiful. Now, there was a case, at the end of the second 8, where the melody wasn’t played correctly, and it didn’t bother me at all. I’m not a bookworm about that stuff. It has to do with intent of how you go about those things. I’m certainly not watching the score when I listen to somebody play. But there are ways of paraphrasing and there are ways of not. I love the melody reading of this! I don’t know who it is. But it’s very nice and very honest. Can’t pick the bass player or drummer either. See, there’s all kinds of HONEST sloppiness in this! When I say “sloppy,” I mean in terms of traditional piano playing. But it’s not sloppy when you make something expressive happen with the instrument. That’s just music-making. It’s not about notes. I’d never think about harmonizing anything like that, something I heard this person do when he gets to the end of… “I don’t know if you can find these THINGS…” — right there. 5 stars for feeling. [AFTER] I can only say that I don’t know Walter’s playing well. It was really gorgeous. And I really wouldn’t have guessed him, because there was such a purity to it harmonically.
9. Clarence Profit, “Body and Soul” (from CLARENCE PROFIT, Memoir, 1939/1993) – (5 stars)
Well, that’s the boss. [LAUGHS] Hold on. It’s incredible how much you hear of Tatum here, while it’s not Tatum. I’ve even heard Bud almost have a feel like this sometimes when he plays solo, hearing “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” or something like that. It’s not Bud. At least I don’t think so. The harmony is just gorgeous. It’s a bit too quirky to be Teddy! To me. I’d only be guessing. I’m not sure who it is. Somebody like Gerry Wiggins or… But it’s an earlier recording. Someone who’s got those things, who’s got some of Art’s feel. [AFTER] This makes sense. I’ve never heard Clarence Profit play. I’ve read about him in Billy Taylor’s book, and they talked about how Clarence Profit and Tatum used to throw choruses back and forth. So it may very well be that Tatum was drawing on Profit. It’s hard to know. But they said that he was one of the of the unbelievable harmonizers. And I must go out and buy this record IMMEDIATELY.
10. Jimmy Rowles-Ray Brown, “Sophisticated Lady” (from AS GOOD AS IT GETS, Concord, 1977) – (5 stars)
[IMMEDIATELY] This is Jimmy Rowles and Ray Brown playing “Sophisticated Lady.” First of all, you’re talking about two sounds that are so distinctive that I wouldn’t even have to know the record. These are two men who absolutely express their souls with complete purity on their instruments. There is no division. There’s no wasted notes. There’s nothing without meaning. There’s nothing that isn’t played with meaning, if you know what I mean. It’s not just the notes, but the way everything is played, the sound, every single detail. Time, touch, and the choice. Nothing wasted. And the freedom. And the discipline. This has it all. This is a billion stars for both. Giants of American music, period. Giants of any music. [AFTER] Just one other thing to say about Rowles. That’s jazz piano in that you can’t write down the way he’s expressing himself. It’s not like playing a Mozart concerto. It’s about getting vocal and drum sort of things out of the piano. It’s both pianistic playing but very unpianistic playing in that it really is the piano as rhythm and a vocal instrument. You really can’t write that stuff down. That’s all about feeling.
11. Danilo Perez, “It’s Easy To Remember” (from THE ROY HAYNES TRIO, Verve, 1999) (4 stars) – (Roy Haynes, drums; John Patitucci, bass)
Somebody is playing “It’s Easy to Remember” with a different type of arrangement. This is such a beautiful song, such a pure song and such an emotional song that I think this arrangement is obscuring the intent of this song. One doesn’t need to do anything to flay this. There’s too much going on for the composition to get through. Once again, it’s the composition as a vehicle for an instrumentalist, and that doesn’t appeal to me all that much. But very fine players, obviously. I’m afraid that I don’t know who this is. [The drummer is the leader of the trio.] Just because the leader of the trio isn’t the one who sings the melody doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be sung! [Does this remind you of any vocalist?] This might remind me of the way that maybe Betty Carter would do a song, but she could anything with anything, and it would be great! Understand that I wasn’t saying that you couldn’t sing it this way. That’s a different thing than saying perhaps that to really do this song the way that I think this song shows itself might not be like this. But Betty Carter could basically do anything, and still get it across, and maybe say something different with it. It’s like doing “Just One Of Those Things” as a ballad and making it mean something. [Any idea who the drummer is?] No, I don’t. For me, this is a bit unfocused. Nice for a live performance perhaps. But I want a sense of drama all the way through, and to me this doesn’t really keep that for me, even though they are all very fine players, obviously. 4 stars for all the players, just for playing very well. One star for the arranger. [AFTER] The fact that I thought that that was someone who was my contemporary, and it’s Roy Haynes, is just a testament to the fact that Roy Haynes may well be the world’s great modern drummer, and here he is in his seventies. Like Jim Hall is maybe the greatest modern guitarist. These people are absolutely cross-generational. There are no gaps in any areas, and that’s an absolutely remarkable thing. I have seen Roy Haynes do things that I have no idea how he does or where it comes from. It is as pure as I ever hear in any kind of music. That this particular trio performance didn’t come off maybe in a way that was completely satisfying to me is totally beside the point. Roy Haynes is a genius and deserves all the stars you can muster for everything he does. I don’t feel as a human being I have a right to judge any other human being. And I don’t like any rating systems. I got plenty of F’s and D’s in school. But the point is that you might be completely touched during a set by one thing and then left completely cold by the next thing that’s played.
12. Dick Hyman, “In The Still Of The Night” (from MUSIC OF 1937, Concord, 1990) – (5 stars)
That’s Dick Hyman playing “In The Still Of The Night.” That’s not hard. The funny thing about Dick is that I’ve heard people say, “Well, he plays a little like this and a little like this and a little like this.” Unh-uh! He plays exactly like him. That doesn’t sound like anybody else to me, and he has his own way of putting it together. One of the great solo pianists in history. Brilliant musician. Five stars. That’s from “Music Of 1937,” on Concord, the live thing he did at Maybeck. I know it well.
I’ve heard Danilo and Benny Green and Brad Mehldau and all of the people who are in my age group do things that nobody does better than them. That’s where it’s at. There are places where we live that are our truest places. When we do those things, there are no imitators. We’re doing what we do and saying what we say in the way that only we can say it. No snowflake is the same.
Bill Charlap (May 23, 2009) – Algonquin Hotel, NYC:
Although he lives a half-hour’s drive from Manhattan, pianist Bill Charlap, when the demands of his schedule threaten his rest, often opts to bunk at the Algonquin Hotel, a block east of the Times Square theater district. Which is why Charlap asked jazz.com to meet him in the Algonquin’s lobby on Memorial Day Saturday, towards the end of week one of a fortnight engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, his trio partners since 1997.
“I’ve really been running the last two days,” Charlap said, referencing a duo recording he’d made on the previous afternoon with alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, a close friend since both were classmates at New York’s High School of Performing Arts at the cusp of the ‘80s. “I drove out after the gig on Thursday, stayed in the Delaware Water Gap, recorded with Jon, drove back to Manhattan, played three sets—I was really hurting.”
It was the trio’s first extended engagement since the end of 2008, when Charlap similarly performed at night while recording during the day with the Blue Note 7, an all-star group—Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums—assembled for the purpose of playing iconic repertoire from the Blue Note Records catalog in observance of the label’s 75th anniversary. After four months on the road as the band’s pianist and de facto music director, Charlap was ready to return to his first love, the Great American Songbook, which was at its apogee during the ‘30s and ‘40s, when such classy writers and legendary wits as Dorothy Parker, George Kaufman, and S.L. Perelman frequented the Algonquin Roundtable.
A quick glance at Charlap’s recorded c.v. makes it clear how intimate a relationship he enjoys with this material. On the 2004-05 Blue Note albums Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul and Somewhere, and Begin The Beguine [Venus], made for the Japanese market, Charlap, now 42, celebrated repertoire, respectively, by George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Cole Porter. Stardust [Blue Note] is a vivid 2000 exploration of the world of Hoagy Carmichael, while Love You Madly [Venus], from 2003, is a kaleidoscopic tour of Ellingtonia. On eight other trio albums since 1995, Charlap has rendered incisive, nuanced interpretations of tunes iconic and obscure by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Burton Lane, Alec Wilder, Jule Styne, and other luminaries of the period, including his late father, Moose Charlap, who composed the score for Peter Pan. Each performance expresses an informed point of view, articulated, as no less an authority than George Shearing remarked in the liner notes for All Through The Night [Criss-Cross], documenting Charlap’s first meeting with the Washington’s, “touch, swing, sound, precision, and just about everything you need in a well-rounded, well-schooled jazz pianist.”
“Usually, I will play a song at a tempo or in an arrangement where you could hear the lyric, because to me, words and notes are very much 50-50,” Charlap told me a few years back. “The lyric doesn’t always inform my approach; sometimes I choose, as an arranger and improviser, to paraphrase the composition. But if the lyrics are good, they drip off of the notes. For example, ‘Where Or When’ has many repeated notes, but each note has a word, and those words inform the playing.”
– – – – – –
This is the trio’s first extended run in some time, its longest period of inactivity since it formed. Has the layoff had an impact?
Well, I can only say—and maybe it’s just part of getting older and part of our experience together as a group—that I feel the value of playing together with Kenny and Peter more and more each time. I never take it for granted, and it feels very high on my priority list.
So being away from them…absence makes the heart grow fonder?
It’s not even necessarily about having been away, or working with the Blue Note 7, or anything like that. It’s that, as years go on, the things that are really important to you get more important, and things that are less important to you also become less important. I’m not saying that the Blue Note 7 was less important. That was very important, too. But the trio has a real family feeling, which I think continues to grow. I feel that, and I’m sure that Kenny and Peter do, too. If it’s not a challenge and it doesn’t feel like that, there wouldn’t be a reason to continue.
Are you bringing in new repertoire?
I recently brought in about seven new pieces, and that always helps. But also approaching things differently. Sometimes I’ll reassess a couple of things, or change tempos. I feel that it’s expanding in its scope—the organic qualities continue, and willingness to take things in maybe subtly different directions. The cues are very fast, organic and intuitive. That was always there, though. Chemistry is chemistry. We had chemistry right away, from the very first time we played. But the chemistry grows. Maybe sometimes when you rest on certain music for a little while, it does have a chance to gestate a bit. I’m sure that has something to do with it, too.
What’s the percentage of arrangement versus the percentage of improvisation, or the ways that they mix, within your concept of the trio?
To be honest with you, I never really sat down and thought about it. But as time’s gone on, I’ve realized that there is a side of me that is an arranger and loves to come up with concepts for the trio or myself—or ways of playing a piece. Sometimes an arrangement means a harmonic arrangement or a harmonic approach, maybe just a vibe. Sometimes it’s much more involved. Sometimes it does become a full arrangement inclusive of piano, bass, and drums, and counterpoint, and all that sort of stuff. So the answer is…I don’t know the exact answer. I think it’s a balance of a number of things. Sometimes I’ll call some tunes or play something that there is no real arrangement of, although because of the way that we play and how well we know each other, these things can also organically become an arrangement or the point of view from which we’ll approach it.
What I find happening in the trio—which is very gratifying and fun for me and for us—is that even the arranged parts become more pliable, and more subtle, and more able to be renegotiated in terms of phrasing, chord disposition, bass notes, the drum arrangement. None of those things are set in stone. They change all the time, very quickly. It’s almost like when you hear a concert pianist, like Rubinstein, play a Chopin waltz he’s played 300 times—the idea is not to waste any moment of it. It’s what I’m talking about in regard to one’s priorities as you grow as a musician—it becomes more important not to waste. Each time you play is precious, in the sense that… It’s that old song, “For All We Know, We May Never Meet Again.” Nobody knows.
It’s really worth a lot each time you’re able to be in a situation like the Blue Note 7, which was very special. It would be wonderful if we should do something again, and I would not at all be surprised if we do. But you never know when you might look back and say, “wow, we never had a time like that again.” so it’s good to really value it all the time. I think that’s part of what I’m talking about in even approaching the arrangements.
Back to the answer to your question. There are so many different ways of arranging pieces that I couldn’t say there’s a percentage. Certainly, though, I like having a point of view for each piece. Even if it’s improvised, I think the arranger’s aesthetic is there from all of the things that we have done with arrangement within the group. A quick nod or a quick musical cue could mean double-time now, or break the double-time, or all kinds of things. Kenny orchestrates at the trap set. He’s so fast at listening to everything, the right and the left hand, all the cues, that he’ll hear something, and tailor it. right away. Sometimes it’s intuitive—often, as we know each other musically so well now, we’ll hear each other giving the cue, and take educated guesses that sometimes come out right. Even when they don’t, the pieces of the puzzle, at its best, fit like a good Swiss watch.
Let’s talk about Blue Note 7 for a bit. It was put together as kind of front group to market Blue Note’s seventieth anniversary, and probably a chance to make some good music. Tell me how it was presented to you, how you conceptualized it once the basic parameters were presented, how the personnel coalesced, how you interacted with the personnel. One thing, parenthetically: When I interviewed Bruce Lundvall after Christmas, he said he was impressed with the way you had focused an ensemble of musicians with different points of view, mostly leaders, strong-willed artists, towards your point of view, as he interpreted it.
I appreciate Bruce saying that. But I didn’t make anyone come to my point of view. You had six musicians and myself, who are accomplished and classy and respect each other, and they were very professional and gracious in being able to have someone to be an organizing force. But I was not forceful in any way. I do think that it’s useful in a band to have somebody who does that. It’s not always the easiest thing to have a group where you have seven heads of state. I’m not even saying that I’m the head of state…
Well, you’ve made a similar comment about the trio as well.
Yes. Well, I think it’s good to say, “What do you feel like playing tonight?” Or, if somebody says, “Let’s do this,” maybe that’s not what you want to do that night, but figure out a way to make that work. You really should allow people to do what they want. That’s where they’re going to play their best. It’s not a solo gig, so it’s good to have some direction, but you don’t need to be a boss. Ever. I think there is a way of allowing everybody some space. That doesn’t mean there might not be a time when you say, “Well, I really don’t want to do that right now; let’s do that the next set.” That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a leader.
But back to the Blue Note 7. The way that it worked was Jack Randall, who is my primary booking agent at Ted Kurland Associates, gave me a call. He said, “We’re thinking of putting together a septet with a number of players, playing classic Blue Note material.” I said to him, “What do you mean by ‘classic Blue Note material?’”—just trying to get him to clarify it. It was clear that we were on the same page, the page that pretty much anybody might choose, which is mid-‘50s to late-‘60s, essentially the great period of modern jazz when you’re talking about the classic albums of the great composers-players—Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Bud Powell, Sonny Clark, Art Blakey. All the great ones.
Of course, right away it was an attractive idea to me, because it’s music I love to play anyway. It’s music I cut my teeth on, that we continue to be inspired by, that is the best rhythm section playing, the greatest jazz compositions, some of the greatest recorded music, some of the greatest small group music—it is still the paradigm of small-group playing in terms of all the music that’s there. And all of us in this group grew up with that music. We all grew up with Maiden Voyage and Blue Trane and In and Out and Speak Like a Child and Ju-Ju and the The Real McCoy, The Amazing Bud Powell—all the records.
So that was attractive right away. I said, “Well, that’s repertoire that I can certainly wrap myself around. Who do you imagine is going to write all these arrangements, though? This is a septet. We can’t just call these tunes. Plus, how do you pick it?” Then the obvious question: “With over a thousand albums, and all of them great, many of them classics, how do you choose?”
Jack said, “Well, we were hoping that you would do that.”
I said, “Well, that’s very nice, but this is a group of very accomplished, important players, and I wouldn’t think of being the sole person responsible for that. But I could help organize it, and my idea is that we should probably spread out the arranging and probably spread out the choices of the pieces. What kind of pieces do you have in mind?” They thought it could really be anything that works, along with some commercial ideas, such as “Sidewinder” and “Song for My Father.” Later, Nicholas Payton wrote an arrangement for “Song For My Father,” but it was very far afield from the original “Song For My Father.”
That was very good, because finally, the idea is to pay tribute to those pieces without… It’s repertoire band, but not a repertory band. My idea of a repertory band is a band that almost plays the same original arrangements, maybe even some of the same solos (some bands are like that)—Smithsonian Institution type of things. That wasn’t the idea. You have seven players who are playing jazz in 2009 and should play the way that they play, and should approach the pieces the way that they would want to approach them.
However, of course, we want also to have the essence of those pieces. That’s very easy to do. After all, Horace Silver and Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock are master composers. Their pieces are so strong, the aesthetic is there. Everything is there. All you have to do is start with the correct raw materials, and then,if you approach it your way, with taste, generally the pieces will speak. It has to do with taste and it has to do with experience. Any of these players could have done anything with any of the pieces. I think because of the respect for the material, they didn’t want to recompose them so much as illuminate what’s so beautiful about them in the first place, and not to get rid of the elements of swing and bebop and the blues and great rhythm section playing. That’s just a natural. Nobody was told, “do this and do that, and don’t do this.”
So, the first thing was the idea that, ok, everybody can contribute. And the ideas of players made sense. I worked as a guide in some cases, and in other cases it was right on the money, just in terms of the musical and personal chemistry of the players. We lucked out. Seven equal members. That’s all that it should have been.
Finally, we made the album very quickly, with one or two rehearsals. We did it last winter, recording during the day while I was playing at Dizzy’s at night. I can’t do this kind of thing any more; it’s really getting too tiring. But I made it happen—and everybody wanted to make it happen. The players’ mutual respect and love for this music made everyone stay late in the recording studio, to burnish these things and polish them to be the best they could be. The album is very good, in my opinion. It came out beautifully and naturally. But it was done before we went on the road. Of course, things grew organically, and if we had recorded the album in April, it would have been quite different. Anyhow, we actually did hire a recording engineer to record all six nights at Birdland, so I’m sure we will eventually have something. Those were our final performances, and we stretched out on things, so it will be interesting to hear those recordings in contrast.
Anyway, after thinking about what artists we had to represent, as I say, somebody had to be a guiding force so you wouldn’t have all up-tempos, or all ballads, or all swinging things—all just one aesthetic. You want to have a well-balanced meal. So I picked one or two things for each player who wanted to arrange something and asked: “What do you think about this? It would be nice if we had a piece representing this musician, and I thought this would be a good piece to have.” Usually, the player said, “Yeah, that appeals to me; that works for me; I’ll do that.” Or sometimes someone said, “well, that’s good, but I like this a little better.” Always I would say, “Yes, ok, that’s fine; sounds good to me.” Again, have players do what they want to do.
Certainly as an apprentice, you sidemanned with some quartets as an apprentice, worked a long time, have done a lot of duos, as well as leading the trio…
And lots of singers early on.
But of your recordings for Blue Note, only on Plays George Gershwin is there an ensemble. Can you speak to the way you approach the flow of a piece when you’re not the lead voice?
It’s balance. Just like anything else, you make a concert, you want to make sure everybody’s got some space to shine and that everybody gets a chance to play enough. There’s a big band aesthetic, because you can’t solo on every piece. We had mature musicians who understood that and chose their moment to shine, and would always defer to each other. You might even have in the band a player who said, “Hey, why don’t I give my solo to him? He hasn’t played too much.” That’s the type of maturity I’m talking about.
But as for me, I’ve certainly played plenty with horn players and in large ensembles, big bands. Maybe not recorded myself that way under my own name. I’ve been in that situation well enough times to know what to do. Like everybody else, I played every gig that was worthwhile that I could.
And probably gigs that weren’t so worthwhile.
Sometimes not. But they’re all worthwhile when you’re cutting your teeth. Play with a lousy singer who plays in the weirdest keys and can’t quite keep things together—because it will teach you.
You’re also artistic director of the Jazz in July concert series at the 92nd Street YMHA, and your fifth season is coming up.
Yes. This means putting together six concerts each year, each one with a different point of view, thinking about either a different artist’s work, or a different type of presentation (each one a presentation), and then, of course, putting together the music that the musicians will play, amassing the cast for each of the concerts. I play on every one of the concerts, and I am the Master of Ceremonies, and basically put the whole thing together, inasmuch as I can, and then allow the musicians to put the rest of it together. That’s what it’s about.
Dick Hyman did that for twenty years before me. He’s my distant cousin on my father’s side, and he’s always been a great mentor to me. When I was in my early teens, he took me around when he was doing record dates, or playing solo concerts, or film scoring, just about anything he was doing, and I would sit as a fly on the wall and watch him operate. He’s such a great artist and professional, I learned a great deal from that. Types of things you couldn’t learn at a traditional piano lesson. When he asked me if I would like to be artistic director of that series, he said to me, “Well, if you want to do this, do it your way. Don’t feel like you have to do what has been.” I took that exactly in the spirit that it was meant, and it was very generous of him. Of course, I would do that anyhow. But to know that’s how he felt about it was very freeing.
Would you talk a bit about the role that this event has within the structure of New York City jazz life?
I can really only speak about it during my tenure so far, and I’m in my fifth year.
But you were a close observer of it before.
Yes. It’s a New York jazz festival, and what’s great about it is you have a very high percentage of some of the greatest jazz musicians. Just this year alone, we have Phil Woods and Jimmy Heath and Mulgrew Miller, Barbara Carroll—so many great people who are world-class on any level. Over the last five years, we’ve had everyone from Billy Taylor to Hank Jones, Wynton Marsalis… In a sense, these are all New York players, so it’s really a New York festival. In fact, one of the concerts this summer is a New York concert. “A Helluva Town,” is the title. That is cast across the generations and across some musical styles as well, playing everything from Joplin to Coltrane, and New York songs, too.
There’s also a concert devoted to Sondheim and Jule Styne. There’s a piano jam in tribute to Oscar Peterson, a saxophone jam, a tribute to Gerry Mulligan, and a Vince Guaraldi tribute. Were these all ideas that you had on the back burner?
It’s just music that I love.
Why Vince Guaraldi, for example?
I always loved Vince’s music. This is one of the places where jazz has gotten into people’s souls without them necessarily knowing it. It holds a special place in American popular culture, in that there is some real jazz playing that everybody knows. Everybody knows the sound of it. Vince had something. His music communicated. It was very hearable for maybe a non-jazz listener. But the feeling was really warm, with that little Latin tinge as well. It’s really soulful. There was a lot of optimism in his sound. Anyway, it’s perfect that it was the soundtrack for Peanuts. It was a stroke of genius on the part of the producer, Lee Mendelson. He heard “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio, which was a hit record, and said, “I’ve got to find out who that guy is; that’s the music I want.” Well, both “Cast your Fate to the Wind,” and then “Linus and Lucy,” the classic that everyone knows, have a similar feel, both in the way that they’re played and the concept of it. But there’s a lot more Guaraldi music. “Christmas Time Is Here,” which we’ll do, even though it’s summer in July at a Jewish institution. But that’s ok. It’s New York, like I said. I was born into a Jewish family, though we were never religious, but we always had a Christmas tree. What can I tell you? That’s what I mean by New York.
It would seem that only one of the concerts, Saxophone Summit, doesn’t draw directly on some component of your experience. Sondheim and Styne is another layer of songbook repertoire, musical theater repertoire. “With Respect To Oscar”—I don’t know how much you were an Oscar-phile in your youth, but…
Oh, in a major way. Oscar was one of the first and foremost pianists, both the trio aesthetic and his overwhelming, comprehensive command of the piano.
Was he someone you were looking to as a young guy?
Absolutely. I still do.
The Mulligan Songbook is a major component of your musical consciousness as a professional, and several of his tunes are in your regular trio book.
That’s true. I love Gerry’s music. Something he used to say is, “Well, I shot for 42nd Street, and I over-shot and ended up on 52nd Street.” What he meant by that is, of course, that his jazz compositions are just this side of popular song. They’re very tuneful. You leave the theater singing them, in a sense. So there’s a great influence there. Yet they’re certainly jazz compositions.
Apart from the visibility that you accrued by being with Mulligan when you were 22-23-24 years old, you also have spoken of the way that his expectations of the piano’s function in his group shaped your approach to piano playing and shaped certain aspects of your style.
I felt lucky to be with him. Gerry Mulligan was a really original arranging voice in jazz. Dave Brubeck said about him, “You hear the past, the present, and the future, all at the same time.” He had an open mind, yet a love for bebop, but a love for Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford, and equally a love for Prokofiev. There was a lot of dimension to his music. And lyricism. So Mulligan the arranger was important, and of course, since he played the baritone saxophone, though often in the register of a cello, almost like Lester Young… That was, I think, his paradigm of playing, unlike Pepper Adams, who was, of course, a super-virtuoso, and also one of the all-time greats. Very different aesthetic. Because Gerry played the baritone saxophone, you had to think a little differently at the piano because of range and register. Also, Gerry was an arranger who didn’t want the piano player to just comp along. He wanted a more orchestral approach. It got me thinking. That’s all. I also would pull his coat about some of his classic things, particularly Birth of the Cool and the nonet things that he did later. I’d ask, “What are those voicings? What were you thinking? What were you doing? Will you write that out for me? Would you show me that at the piano?” And he did. He was generous about that. Just naturally, that probably opened up a lot of thinking for me. I realized it later. I’d start writing something, or playing something, or arranging, and say, “Hmm, Gerry’s a piece of that.” I was lucky that before he passed away, I got a chance to tell him that he would be a part of every note that I play for the rest of my life, and I was grateful for that.
As far as Sondheim and Jule Styne, I’m trying to recall whether you have or haven’t incorporated Sondheim repertoire in your trio.
There’s one Sondheim tune in my book. It’s called “Uptown, Downtown.” It was cut from Follies. It’s a wonderful tune, one of the few Sondheim songs that you can really swing. I’ve played Sondheim’s music before, but not with the trio. Actually, I did a Sondheim concert around ten years ago at the 92nd Street Y for Dick Hyman when he was the Artistic Director, probably coming into about ten years ago, where we played two pianos. I also played with Kenny and Peter on that concert. So I got to learn some more of that music there. I love Steven Sondheim’s theater music; he’s the logical extension of all of the giants.
It’s often been remarked that, perhaps because you’re so immersed in the lore and content of musical theater, you do something that many people find challenging, which is improvise upon that repertoire in a very open way, but also wrap your improvisations very much around the nuances of the lyrics. Can you speak to how you accumulated this knowledge? It couldn’t all have just been bloodline.
Born around it. Born around the aesthetic. Born around the love for it. My father, Moose Charlap, was a theater writer. Naturally…
And I’m sure your mother knew a ton of songs.
Oh, yeah. So there is that. But I just loved it. It made sense to me. To me, it was important to know what makes Irving Berlin different than Richard Rodgers, different than Gershwin, different than Arlen, different than Kern, different than Porter. What was it about them, about their songs, that made a stamp? It’s not just a standard. To call it a tune is too small a word for these guys. They were master composers of the blueprints that they made. One thinks of what it is about Monk’s songs that makes Monk sound like Monk. Well, how can you recognize Rodgers? It was interesting to me. As I learned the composers, I started to see what their personal slants were, and all of the pieces started to fall into formation. This process continues; it’s not something I’ve mastered, by any means. In any event, as a jazz fan, as you get to learn the history of jazz piano, you understand where Earl Hines sits in relation to Bud Powell, in relation to Herbie Hancock. Well, you start to see where Jerome Kern sits in relation to Gershwin, in relation to Rodgers. It’s just another huge piece of American music, and a HUGE piece of the repertoire for jazz musicians. So to me, it didn’t make any sense not to have that be a very large part of my aesthetic.
Again, Mulligan loved the songwriters. He thought that way. It was nice to be around somebody from that generation, who was certainly a master jazz musician, who had that kind of awe of and respect of another way of thinking. This was my father’s world, so I knew what it was to write a score, and launch a show, and have an arranger, and have a producer, and out-of-town tryouts—and all of that world. But I’m a jazz musician. I am lucky to have had a window into that world. So that’s all.
But I think it accumulated both naturally, just amassing maybe a knowledge of the lyric and the song and all of those things. But when I say “naturally,” it means listening to many albums and scores; and reading through many books on composers; talking to people; being around people like Marilyn and Alan Bergman and Jule Styne, and a lot of people who were around in my life when I was a kid.
At what stage of your life did you start to become obsessed with jazz? Someone like Michael Feinstein, for instances, knows everything about musical theater, but he isn’t a jazz musician.
Well, I don’t know everything about musical or everything about anything else. What I mean to say is that Feinstein certainly has a much more vast knowledge of that type of thing than I would.
That being said, you did your jazz interest run in parallel?
The whole thing is one giant, cross-related thing!
So you saw it always as cross-related.
Everything. Not to mention Bach and Schoenberg. They were in there, too! I was interested in what makes American music. What makes this repertoire? Why are we playing Rhythm changes? Why do we play the blues? Why do we play these songs? Why do we keep going back to these songs? Then, in relation to that, what makes Monk’s compositions great? Not just in relation to that, but also its own thing. All of that. So it was a natural thing for me, I guess.
Also, in learning the songs (and frankly, this is not something unique in any way), I figured, “Well, this is part of what you do.” One of the first gigs I did was at the Knickerbocker when I was in my teens—I was given Monday nights to play solo piano. A guy came in and asked, “Do you play some Irving Berlin tunes?” I said, “Maybe I do” or something like that. Or I knew maybe one or two. I thought, “I should be able to rattle off fifty of them; he’s too important.” So a light went on in my head. I said, “Well, you should probably be able to say yes.” But it’s never scholastic with me. Really I’m a fan. I’m a fan of Wayne Shorter and I’m a fan of Irving Berlin.
But the one point I wanted to make is, in learning the songs, to me, it’s learning the lyrics, too, because they’re part and parcel of the same thing. The lyric will inform you how to phrase a melody. Or, what it is that you’re doing in not phrasing the melody. I just want to have a full box of tools before I make the choice.
I’m trying to thread some of these themes along the New York idea.
300 East 51st Street.
300 East 51st Street. Jewish family. Part of a line of…
Not that Jewish. Jewish in culture, but not Jewish in religion.
Like a lot of Jewish families of that generation.
Exactly. I wasn’t bar-mitzvahed.
But 300 East 51st Street. Town School. High School of Performing Arts.
Yup. New York.
But not that many New York based professional jazz musicians are actually from New York. Apart from a place to grow up, New York is also a melting pot. Can you speak to the challenges of being an aspirant musician from New York and the opportunities that it affords?
It’s both. When I was a kid, I could go to the Village Gate and hear Junior Mance, or go to Lush Life and hear Kenny Barron, or go to Bradley’s and hear Red Mitchell and Tommy Flanagan. It was all…
What do you mean by “a kid”?
In my teens I was able to do that. So when you’re exposed to musicians of that level, as close as you could be in a place like Bradley’s… You could sit right there. Geez! Tommy Flanagan’s playing right in front of you. What better lesson is that? I like what Ed Koch said about New York. I’m misquoting, but he said something like, “If you’re one in a million, there’s ten of you in New York.” What I mean by that, of course, is that the level of competition is incredibly high. Even going to the High School for the Performing Arts, there were kids in my class in freshman year who could play all the Chopin Etudes, letter-perfect technique. I was never geared towards being a classical pianist. Not that I didn’t study classical music, but it was way later. I was already playing theater songs on my own, improvising, and whatever else I was playing—it didn’t really have a name. But the bar was set really, really high. And you know the energy of New York. Things go at the speed of light. The cultural milieu is huge! Jackie Mason said something funny when he said, “Oh, I could never leave New York, because it has the ballet.” “So do you ever go to the ballet?” He says, “No, I never go to the ballet. But it’s there!”
So jazz always appealed to you.
My parents were listening to it, and it was always part of the sound around my house anyway. Not to mention that my father passed away when I was 7 years old, and my mother was remarried a number of years later to a trumpeter called George Triffon. He was my stepfather. He passed away a couple of years ago. He was a great trumpet player, not an improviser, but played third and second trumpet in Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, he was on the <i>Merv Griffin Show</i>—a professional in his generation who was always listening to Bill Evans and Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan and Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer…
So the template was there.
Yeah, it was all there. That’s what they were listening to.
Well, when [bassist] Michael Moore is telling Whitney Balliett that not too many kids your age have absorbed Jimmy Rowles, or when Balliett in this 1999 New Yorker piece describes you as having “ absorbed every pianist worth listening to in the past fifty years” within the flow of your improvisational thinking…
It was nice of him to say, but it’s not true.
But the references are there, because you heard them.
There isn’t anyone that he mentioned that I don’t love. There are many more he didn’t mention that I also love. And I don’t remember what the short list was.
I can read it to you.
No, I’ll read it. “Starting with Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Rowles, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson, then moving through Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans, and finishing with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Kenny Barron.”
Well, there’s a lot more. Did he say Sonny Clark? Did he say Earl Hines? Did he say Red Garland? Did he say Wynton Kelly? Did he say Ahmad Jamal? There’s a lot more that I love, who are giants.
This morning I was listening to the dates you did for Criss Cross before the trio with Peter and Kenny, and it was a different sound. More abstract, different time feel…
Different cats. But there was a difference in the way you were approaching material, it seemed to me.
I was growing, and you continue to grow. It also had to do with the chemistry between whoever those rhythm sections were, and then maybe what I was thinking about musically at that time. All of that stuff comes together. It gives your music dimension. I never thought of cutting away something. Maybe it’s a matter of you get more focused.
One thing struck me. I was listening to “Confirmation” from the 1995 Criss-Cross record, Souvenir, and it was very abstract, almost 12-tone…
At the beginning.
I don’t think you would do something like that with this trio, for instance.
Well, I might have some element of that existing in there. I wouldn’t say that I couldn’t and wouldn’t. Things have happened like that. It’s a matter of taste, that’s all, or whatever…
Everybody grows, everybody crystallizes their ideas, everybody develops an aesthetic that suits them for the different places they find themselves. I’m just wondering if you can reflect on how your aesthetic has evolved over this last 12-15 years, or what role the trio has played in your aesthetic evolution.
It’s very hard to say that. It’s almost something I can’t answer without contradicting myself, without contradicting how I really feel about it. Because finally, I really love a lot of music, and appreciate a lot of people’s aesthetics. I don’t need them to be the same as mine to really appreciate them.
I’m talking about your aesthetic.
I wouldn’t even want to say I’m trying to do this or I’m trying to do that. Because I can’t think that way. Both Kenny and Peter have such a beautiful originality in the way that they play their instruments and approach their music, yet they are so deeply informed also by the history of the music and the focal players on their instruments. Their aesthetic is very mature, very experienced. The depth of their time playing is very high. Maybe there’s a purity to the aesthetic that appeals to me. I just like beauty. What can I say?
You’ve made that statement: “Truth and beauty.”
Well, I didn’t invent it. It’s what Bill Evans told Tony Bennett before he died. I think that it’s right there in the music. If anyone wants to know what it is that means the most to me, all they have to do is listen. It’s right there.
You have another trio, the New York Trio, with Jay Leonhart on bass and Bill Stewart on drums, that you don’t perform with, but record with, which has made almost as many records, all for the Japanese market, as this trio.
I wouldn’t exactly say, though, it’s another trio that I have. It’s quite different, because this is a trio that has only existed in the recording studio on those albums. We did one gig once. So this is a band I’ve recorded with, but I still wouldn’t…
But it’s the same three people over a period of years, and the musical production is documented, and the notes and tones come from you.
True. It has to do with a bunch of things. First of all, I know going in that we’re going to record an album. We’re not going to be working on this material over time. Also, if an album is brought to me, it may be the producer’s concept: “We’d like to do a Richard Rodgers album.” Well, I think about these players playing this music, and maybe wouldn’t approach it the same way as I would with Kenny and Peter, and purposefully leave things in a way that allows the players to approach the pieces with ease. Because after all, we’re not rehearsing. We’re recording right away, going right to it, and letting it go. Often, it’s just a harmonic arrangement of a tune, or something like that.
Do you approach ballads differently now than you did 10 years or 12 years ago?
They mean more to me. They always meant something to me, though. I hear my mom singing them over the years. It’s the song. The song is meaningful to me. A ballad is not always a song. We played “Search for Peace” of McCoy Tyner, which is gorgeous, with the Blue Note 7. I love playing that.
Now, the Blue Note 7 repertoire, for the most part, is not repertoire you would play with the
Oh, it might be. We were playing “Criss Cross” for a little while. Not to mention, Blue Note 7 really was a Blue Note 8, because Renee Rosnes, my wife, was the arranger of four of the pieces that were staples of our book. So she contributed in a very big way to the sound of the band.
She has the piano chair in another put-together-for-a-purpose group, the SF Collective, which has a very different approach.
Oh, you made me think of something I wanted to say. Although the Blue Note 7 did come from a commercial idea, what appealed to me was the idea that we could have a group that would exist in a non-commercial way. Not that it’s not an honor to tout Blue Note, and not that we would not want to tout Blue Note. Forget about if I was signed or not. But the idea was that it be also not be just a gig. A band is a band. A band has to want to be a band. That’s what you want. As musicians, we are in the incredibly lucky position that we’re able to work and get paid for doing what we love doing. It’s been said many times before, but my idea is that I am lucky to do things that I really care about on a very non-commercial level. The records I’ve made for Blue Note with my trio are the exact same records I would have self-produced. I feel that way pretty much of any project I’ve done that hasn’t been done with somebody else’s idea of what it should be, and that’s very fortunate. So the reward is right there in the music.
With the exception of Live at the Village Vanguard, which documents a performance, most of your recordings for Blue Note have thematic. I’m wondering if you can speak to the benefits and pitfalls of doing repertoire-directed sessions where the repertoire is arbitrarily selected.
They’re all different; each one begs a different answer. There’s no downside to it. I wouldn’t call it a downside; it’s a challenge…
I said pitfall.
There’s also no pitfall. It’s like doing Bernstein’s music. The only pitfall (and I wouldn’t call it a pitfall; I’d call it a challenge) would be how to approach this music and give it integrity within our context, and also keep the integrity from the context it comes from. That’s a challenge. But it’s a welcome challenge. The reason for doing a composer or a point of view? Very simply, it’s like a concert pianist doing a program of all Beethoven. It certainly helps to round out your performance and tie it all together, not just because they have their name signed on it, but because it has a personality. Hoagy Carmichael’s music has a personality. Gershwin’s music has a personality. Bernstein has a personality. So finding a program that works as a program…again, it’s like the Blue Note 7. You don’t want eight ballads. You don’t want eight up-tempos. You don’t want all the same music. So you have to find a way to make that work. Then you also want to make sure that you feature the bass and the drums all the way around.
It’s music that has a personality, but then it also has to suit your collective personality.
It’s not like a cabaret performance of the repertoire.
Well, you try to do that as naturally as possible. Of course, these are things I give great thought to. But in an organic way. Not any other way.
Is there a contemporary songbook? Is there a songbook of the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s and ‘00s that you consider to be ripe for similar interpretation?
It’s different. Most of these songs, the great songs, come out of American Musical Theater, and there really wasn’t that much from American Musical Theater in the same way… Our culture changed. It completely changed. People weren’t excited about, oh, the next Gershwin show or the next Rodgers and Hammerstein show. They were talking about other things. They were talking about the Jefferson Airplane perhaps.
Or they were talking about the choreography on Chicago or Cats. The theater may have become more about spectacle for the most part…
Not in the case of Sondheim. But also, it’s the English infiltration of the theater when you’re talking about Lloyd-Webber and all of that. But the aesthetic changed, too. Cy Coleman and my father and a couple of writers continued on, and were at the tail end of the great theater writers.
Is there a songbook? Well, there are still some beautiful songs, certainly of Sondheim, although, because he expands the musical theater, he expands it a little bit away from us as song players. Like Bernstein, too, who was expanding things, and more through-composed… With Bernstein, that was the challenge, I think, that you didn’t want to throw away all his underpinnings, all his orchestration, because they were as much a part of the composition. After all, he was a real composer from soup to nuts. That doesn’t mean that Kern was not a real composer. I don’t think Bernstein could have written a Kern song any better than Kern could have written West Side Story.
But the question is: Is there a contemporary songbook? There are beautiful things written by people like Stevie Wonder. There are beautiful things written by people like Michel Legrand—although you may consider him part of an older tradition of writing, and that’s probably true. Johnny Mandel. It’s different. Much of the popular music today wouldn’t appeal to me. Not that it isn’t good. Not that it’s not expressing something viable and real, and that its creators are not brilliant musicians. But certain things simply are not there for a jazz improviser, particularly in that they are triadic in nature, that they deal with three-note chords, not four-note chords—and that’s a big, big deal for us. You almost have to recompose them to make them right for us. Their blueprint is not a blueprint like “All The Things You Are.” The blueprint needs to be rewritten. “All The Things You Are” does not need to be rewritten. They also often rely upon the performer. I don’t think there’s a better performance of a Beatles song than by the Beatles themselves, whereas I do think that there are often more quintessential performances of some songs from, say, Oklahoma, though they’re quintessential in American Musical Theater in their original forms… Coleman Hawkins playing “Climb Every Mountain” means a lot more to us as jazz players than it does within The Sound of Music, albeit that it’s perfect within The Sound of Music.
So the answer is: I think they are few and far between. I believe that there is repertoire for us, but it’s very differently-built. That’s not necessarily bad.
So you would be coming from a different place than some people situated just across the border of the generational divide from you. Someone like Brad Mehldau, born in 1971, addresses Radiohead and Bjork…
And he does great things with them.
I’m not asking you to judge what he does, but that sort of repertoire…
It’s not for me.
You yourself are 42, and your teenage years, the years in which you developed most rapidly, coincided with the “young lions” coming to New York, in ‘81-‘82-‘83…
Stevie Wonder’s pretty good! I’m sorry. I was still answering the other question. I’d like to play “If It’s Magic.” That’s gorgeous.
In any event, did that development have an effect on you, or were you so tied into the older generation…
I mean, I never was tied into the older generation.
You knew it intimately, though.
I guess so.
You have a certain time feel with this group, that’s very much a bebop time feel.
I’m sure that’s partly because of Kenny’s presence…
No, it’s not just because of Kenny. That’s the center of my musical world for sure.
I don’t think that’s necessarily the intuitive feel for most pianists born after the Baby Boom. For me, that’s also a New York thing, in a way.
Could be. But I think a lot of my generation grew up with that. Renee, Dave Hazeltine, Mike LeDonne… There’s all different places within it, everywhere from Wynton Kelly through Herbie Hancock. But it’s still about swinging. It’s still about playing within a rhythm section. Maybe I happen to feel post-bop things and bop things—and beyond—all together. There’s a lot of that together. If you think about Oscar Peterson, he’s playing harmonically all kinds of things, but there’s a swing feel to his playing that’s not really like Bud Powell. It’s more Nat Cole. Then you just get into personalities. He had such a strong personality that it’s Oscar Peterson music. It’s just not categorizable any more.
But as far as the “young lions,” when I was coming up I didn’t feel negative about it at all. I always felt, “Well, that’s good; it’s good that people are immersing themselves in something that’s really valuable and some tradition.” Of course, the media was jumping on it as a way of promoting a way of thinking, and maybe there was a sociological current going on with that then. But I always saw it in perspective, even when it was happening, which was: Well, that’s for now, and that’s a good thing. That won’t last forever. Nothing else lasts forever. That’s a good thing, because finally, the bottom line is that it just forced players to learn how to play well. There was a criteria of playing well.
Now, I don’t really care too much for any idea that says, “Well, this is the only way to do it” or “this is not worthwhile because this is really the stuff.” I don’t feel that way. I don’t think most great musicians do. It just doesn’t interest me to think that way. But also, if you really, really love something, and if you’re an artist, there is sometimes some myopia. You have to have it. You have to be able to focus very finitely on something. So it’s a delicate balance. It’s personal. I just thought, “Well, that’s another way to do it; that way is good, too.” That’s how I really felt. I never felt that it negated what somebody else who didn’t do that, did, and I didn’t feel that they negated what… Quality is quality. That’s all.
You played with Jim Hall. You played for a long time with Phil Woods. You played duo with Michael Moore. You played duo with Gene Bertoncini. Real serious New York purists, and very demanding taskmasters. Can you make some general comment about your apprenticeship and the value of those sorts of gigs to what you do now?
Those guys are masters. You get around any master, they’re going to show you the path in ways that are technical, in ways that are very clear, and then in ways that are about being around their experience that you continue to learn from. It never ends. Things that you can’t put into words. There’s a feeling there.
Someone who was very important to me was Eddie Locke, the drummer, whom I’ve known since I was in grade school. He was always talking about the feeling of the music, the great musicians he played with, like Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. He’s from Detroit, close friends with Tommy Flanagan and Roland Hanna, whom he had a trio with. Eddie has lived the center of the music, and is about the human feeling in the music. He’s been like family to me over the years. There’s been a lot to glean from being around a person like that. I also was lucky that I had great teachers. Jack Riley, a wonderful pianist, a composer, classical pianist and jazz pianist, and a great musical intellectual as well, very able to impart technical things about the music—a natural of a teacher. Eleanor Hancock, a great concert pianist who was a pedagogue of the pianist, Dorothy Taubman, part of a technical school of playing the piano that was valuable for me in terms of production of sound, getting me to think.
They all showed the way. From each person you learn some very special thing, or many special things. I’m lucky. I always saw that the benchmark was really high, and you know, just try to play better every night.
The another thing, which might seem obvious, is learning to play your instrument with command. All those players are virtuosos of playing their instrument. I think that it’s not too small of a point to make that a comprehensive approach to expressivity on your instrument is essential. One of the things that makes Kenny Washington’s and Peter Washington’s playing so great, is that they are virtuosos on their respective instruments—and Phil Woods, and Gene Bertoncini, and all those people. The bar is very high in terms of their command and sound production. None of that is wasted. I think that’s a key thing for young musicians to understand, is not to be satisfied with just the ability to do some things. There are so many colors out there. That’s what differentiates a Coleman Hawkins from a very fine, educated tenor player—all those colors, and then, of course, the personality. Which will come through. But you have to take care of making a full box of tools, and not cut corners.
That particular cohort of older musicians you played with are not the type to let things go.
They did not cut corners.
And you can’t either, can you.
You can’t. Not if you want to honor how great this music is—and also not if you want to keep the gig. And why would you want to? Finally, to me, it’s all just about being a fan. A couple of nights ago, I heard Barry Harris play “It Could Happen To You.” It was a solo version. And he told such a story on it with so much nuance, it was inimitable. Of course, it was looking down from a lifetime of music and experience. But it was certainly educational, and certainly held up how far away that is.
Is there still such a thing as New York jazz that’s relevant to you?</b>
Well, I don’t know. I only know what I know. Not to quote a lyric…it’s in “Time After Time.” Not Cyndi Lauper’s. But there probably is such a thing. Maybe it has to do with bebop and swinging. But I’m 42, so I’m not on the street with the 20-year-olds any more. I think things are changing a great deal. I don’t think it’s about bebop maybe as much. These days, it’s about odd time, changing time signatures, and not always about swinging. To me that’s a shame. Because if you’re missing that quarter-note and that feeling, you’re missing something very important to the sound of our music. Not to sound like an old fogey, but I think that’s absolutely central. The blues is central. Being part of a family tree musically is central. There’s no outsider art in jazz. It’s too high of an art form. It would be like being a great writer, and not knowing Faulkner and Melville and Thomas Mann. You have to be part of a continuum to say something original. I don’t think you can really bring something “original” without being a part of the canon, and I don’t think you can seek out just being original. I mean, you can’t think of someone more original than Monk, but Monk wouldn’t be Monk without Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. It wouldn’t exist that way. Coltrane wouldn’t have sounded like Coltrane without Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon.
I will say this. My mother and my father were very influential. I saw my Dad’s intensity. Even though he died when he was 7, I watched him at the piano, I heard him play his music. He had great time and he had a great expressiveness in singing and playing his own tunes.
Anything else to say about your mother, Sandy Stewart? You’ve recorded together.
She’s a beautiful singer. She really reads a lyric, and she’s a great musician. We’re going to perform next year again at the Oak Room at the Algonquin, as we have on a yearly basis.
After Jazz in July, are there any special projects, or is it primarily the trio?
There is. I’m going to record a two-piano album with my wife. Renee is a giant of a musician, and a perfect duo partner. She has perfect ears, brilliant time, and taste.
Ted Panken interviewed Bill Charlap at the Algonquin Hotel on May 23, 2009