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Bill Charlap: The Art of Listening

Bill Charlap
Bill Charlap
Bill Charlap

“I try to listen better all the time,” says Bill Charlap.

Indeed, the word “listen” ranks high in the pianist’s lexicon. He listens to music of all types and believes the key to success in any musical situation is to listen to his fellow artists. That listening has paid off: at 35 the pianist has become one of the preeminent interpreters of the American popular song as well as one of jazz’s most accomplished improvisers.

With the release of his second Blue Note album, Stardust (with guest spots by no less than Tony Bennett and Shirley Horn), his frequent appearances with his highly acclaimed trio and his brilliant work with the Phil Woods Quintet, Charlap’s career has reached a new peak.

Charlap’s studious appearance and serious demeanor belie a quick sense of humor. Although he obviously has thought deeply about music, Charlap presents his ideas casually and without pretension. Indeed, it’s hard to be pretentious with two girls under the age of five running around you.

His Newark, N.J., house, which is filled with toys, music books and recordings, is tastefully decorated with his wife Sandra’s artwork. Charlap’s grand piano is located in a small office-studio on the top floor, a room he says he is “allowed to mess up.” Watching him interact with his daughters, Sophie and Vivian, it soon becomes clear that music is not the only focal point in the life of this gifted artist.

Charlap has an encyclopedic knowledge of songs, but his familiarity wasn’t garnered from fakebooks; he grew up with them. His father was composer Moose Charlap, an important songwriter and contributor to the American musical theater who wrote most of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan and whose songs have been recorded by everybody from the Ames Brothers to Joe Williams. His mother is Sandy Stewart, the highly respected jazz singer who worked with Benny Goodman, among others. “I remember my father composing at the piano and my mother singing his music,” Charlap recalls. “That was the first music I experienced.”

Although Moose died when Bill was only seven, Charlap’s father made a lasting impression on him: “He was a very strong personality and a very loving father. I spent a lot of time around him. You could feel his enthusiasm and creativity. He wasn’t a pianist or a singer, but he could really sell you that song!” Bill’s first Blue Note album, Written in the Stars, was dedicated to Moose Charlap and contains a moving rendition of his poignant “I’ll Never Go There Anymore.”

As a youngster, Charlap was exposed to an eclectic mix of sounds. “My parents were both great listeners,” he says. “My mom listened to all the great singers-Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams. My father also listened to a lot of classical music. He’d play Ravel or Respighi or Bartók and make up little stories to the music. It was fascinating for me.”

The Charlaps’ New York apartment was frequented by leading lights of the music world, particularly composers such as Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Charles Strouse and Yip Harburg. “I wasn’t really aware that these people were giants,” he recalls, “but I could feel the artistic energy in the house.”

Charlap soon gravitated to the piano. “It was just a natural thing,” he says. “I was at the piano trying to imitate sounds ever since I can remember. I don’t ever remember thinking I was going to do anything else.” His parents never pushed him, allowing Charap to explore music on his own. “In some ways I wish I had been more disciplined because the basic things I had to get together later might have been in place earlier,” he says. “But it was good to learn everything through my ears. That’s really where it’s at when you’re playing any kind of music.”

His early formal training included lessons with Beverly Wright, who now manages artists in the classical field. “Beverly, who’s still a friend, took me to see a concert pianist named Amiram Rigai who played the Beethoven ‘Appassionata’ at Carnegie Recital Hall,” remembers Charlap. “When I said I wanted to get that record, she got me one of [Rigai] doing the music of [Louis Moreau] Gottschalk, the Creole composer who was a link to Scott Joplin and ragtime.” Charlap also studied with composer/pianist Paul Sargent. “After the lesson, we’d go out for a hamburger and talk about music,” he recalls. “That was even better than the lesson!”

Charlap’s great ears actually undermined his early formal musical training. “I was very lazy about learning to read music,” he admits. “I just tried to charm my teachers. Because I could hear very quickly, I was able to imitate what they did. I was kind of skating by.” He did get serious by the time he attended the famed New York’s High School of Performing Arts and was stimulated by the school’s vital atmosphere and diverse cultural makeup. He studied privately with Jack Reilly and, later, with classical pianist Eleanor Hancock. “I also hung around Dick Hyman a lot,” Charlap recalls. “I would go with him on record dates, and would sit quietly and watch him handle a whole lot of different things. That was real valuable.”

He began playing professionally while still in high school. “The first gig I remember was for a theater company called First Amendment. They were an improv company like Second City. I had to play in every style, not just jazz. Doing that was real good for me-it was like being a silent-movie pianist.”

After graduation, Charlap enrolled at SUNY-Purchase but dropped out after two years to devote himself more intensely to the piano. He rented a cheap apartment that he insulated with foam to muffle the sound, and practiced from morning till night.

A chance meeting on the street with fellow pianist Bill Mays led to Charlap’s first major jazz association. Mays, who was playing with Gerry Mulligan at the time, invited Charlap to his apartment to play and talk about music. After playing duets with him, Mays recommended the young pianist to Mulligan as his replacement when he decided to leave the band. Charlap joined Mulligan in 1988 and remained with the group for two years.

The pianist’s growing reputation led to work in a wide variety of settings, accompanying many leading singers and some of jazz’s greatest instrumentalists. “I’ve learned from everybody I’ve worked with, especially Benny Carter, Clark Terry, Jim Hall, Frank Wess, Grady Tate, Phil Woods and Tony Bennett. Sometimes it may come out 10 years after you play with them.” He also singles out Tommy Flanagan: “I would go and hear him many times, and he was kind enough to come and hear me play and make me very nervous!”

Since 1995, he has held the piano chair in the Phil Woods Quintet. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience,” says Charlap. “Phil has always represented a very high standard of excellence, and you’ve got to meet that standard every night. You need to be flexible and have a pretty comprehensive view of the music historically.”

Few musicians of any generation have a more comprehensive view than Charlap. “I listened to pianists, arrangers, singers-everybody.” he notes. “It wasn’t in an academic way. I was just a fan.” Drummer Kenny Washington, who has worked with Charlap for the past five years and is himself a walking compendium of jazz history, says, “Bill’s listened to a whole lot of music. You can talk to him in depth about everyone from Earl Hines and James P. Johnson to Bud Powell and Herbie Hancock. He doesn’t just pay them lip service-he’s done all the homework.”

This deep knowledge informs every facet of Charlap’s playing. For example, like Thelonious Monk, Charlap often incorporates his own singular brand of stride, sometimes explicitly, sometimes only implied. “It’s not about trying to be eclectic,” he says. “I just do it when it seems appropriate. It’s part of the language.” Charlap’s command of that language also manifests itself in less obvious ways, from his harmonic sensibility, his attention to touch and his understanding of the subtleties of swing. While all these qualities were evident early on, his recent playing often adds a sense of economy that gives it even more emotional depth. Like a latter-day Count Basie, he is more inclined to let the music come to him, to allow silence to effectively frame his phrases, and to let his rhythm section mates fill the cracks.

“Every time I hear myself played back, I basically feel it could be less!” he jokes. “You don’t need to show off how much you know all the time. I wouldn’t say I’m playing less, because one night I might be very verbose. But sometimes it’s nice to let the listener complete the picture. If you see a drawing by Matisse, it might be just one line but you can see it’s a woman’s face. It’s got everything-the whole expression. As Jimmy Rowles once said, ‘If you have an idea, play half of it!'” Charlap’s use of space coupled with his uncanny sense of timing often conveys a dramatic and eerie sense of suspended animation without slowing the tempo. Although he never flaunts his considerable technique for its own sake, it is always there, lending his improvisations a sense of authority and momentum.

Another feature that infuses Charlap’s playing is his deep respect for the melody and the composer-no surprise given his family background. While many jazz players seem to view the melody as merely a stepping-stone to improvisation, Charlap has a very special relationship with everything he plays. He is careful to walk the fine line between interpretation and recomposition. While Charlap certainly takes liberties with a song and is not afraid to put his own stamp on it, he is always mindful of the composer’s intentions and tries to consult original sheet music when possible. “There’s usually something rich in there,” he notes. “I want to know what the lyric is. What are the song’s original harmonies? What’s the original meter? What does the melody actually do and how do the lyrics fit with that melody? What’s the verse?”

He considers earlier recordings of a song to be of secondary importance: “You don’t need to draw your conception from the most important jazz recordings of a song, although you’d be a fool not to know them and why they are what they are. But remember, those performers didn’t have those recordings to go to. They had to find their own way.”

Charlap also has specific ideas about the practice of reharmonization, and does not believe in dissembling a piece simply because it can be done. “Harmony, for me, is about making the melody speak,” he says. “There are points in songs that have weight for different reasons, and there are reasons for what happens in the harmony, so you’ve got to be very careful when you change that. There are different types of reharmonization. Bill Evans reharmonized many of the songs he played, for example, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine.’ But it’s still ‘Come Rain or Come Shine.’ Some people take a song into an entirely different harmonic domain. It’s how they hear it. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, but I’d rather they write their own tune.

“For some composers, like Harold Arlen, you just play what they wrote. That doesn’t mean you don’t change a voicing or perhaps use something he hints at, but it’s all there. Gershwin knew all about harmony. He could have harmonized his songs any way he pleased. He doesn’t need me to make them better!”

One composer who appreciates Charlap’s approach is Benny Carter, whose affecting ballad “Souvenir” was the title track of Charlap’s 1995 album for Criss Cross. “I love what he did with the tune,” says Carter, with whom Charlap played in 1994. “Bill’s got all the necessary attributes: real sensitivity coupled with touch and taste. And he really swings.”

In an era when many jazz players feel that they must perform their own works to be considered complete artists, for the time being Charlap seems to be fulfilled musically by playing great pieces by others. “I’m not a composer,” he says. “I think there’s a difference between a composer and someone who can compose. There are very few composers. I’ve written a couple of things, and they’re okay. But I’m just playing what means the most to me and, at the risk of sounding pretentious, what I feel I have something to say about. Also, you really do hear where a person is at when you hear them play a standard, just as you would know a concert pianist’s imprint when you hear them play Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.”

Charlap is attracted to songs he calls “balanced. A song should sound natural. I don’t want to have to twist it to make it work-it should work already. As Jule Styne once said about songs, ‘They should be melodically simple and harmonically attractive.’ I like the words he used. It wasn’t harmonically interesting-just attractive.”

Charlap’s devotion to melody and respect for composers by no means implies predictability in his performances. Far from limiting him, the pianist’s intimate knowledge of a song’s nuances allows him to probe its very core, mine its hidden treasures and take it in new and often surprising directions. His solo rendition of “Skylark,” from the new Stardust release, is a case in point. In one chorus, he manages to distill the very essence of the melody through single-noted epigrams, rich (and attractive) chords, occasional dissonance, rhythmic displacement and dynamic contrasts.

“Skylark” is but one of the charms on Stardust, which features the compositions of Hoagy Carmichael, the Indiana-born composer whose recent centennial prompted a number of tribute albums as well as a new definitive biography, Stardust Melody, by Richard M. Sudhalter.

Charlap’s second release for Blue Note and his first “composer album” features his working trio of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington and guest appearances by Tony Bennett, Shirley Horn, Frank Wess and Jim Hall. “They are my masters,” Charlap says of these four luminaries. “There are none greater. Each of them represents the highest attainment of sensitivity and taste. It was especially gratifying to have Tony and Shirley agree to take part, since, for me, it’s always about the lyric.”

Although the pianist certainly knew many of Carmichael’s classic melodies, the project led Charlap to delve deeper into the composer’s work. “I had to get closer to his music. Hoagy was not a theater composer, and that sets him apart from the pantheon of songwriters. You get more of his personal aesthetic, since he didn’t have to deal with demands like, ‘Well, we need an 11th-hour number which tells you about the subordinate character, and it’s got to be able to be made into a dance number, and we need to use it as a connective number, and it should have a small range because the actress playing it is not really a singer, and we need it by 6:30!’ That requires a different kind of craftsmanship.”

Carmichael’s music represents a particular brand of Americana. As Charlap points out, humming “Stardust,” “The verse has Bix all over it, but the chorus is Louis. That’s America! The world’s most famous five-measure phrase. It’s almost like a national anthem.”

Besides underscoring the charms of Carmichael’s music, the new album plays to one of Charlap’s strengths: his interaction with fellow musicians. A playful exchange with Jim Hall on “Two Sleepy People,” for example, not only perfectly captures the piece’s blithe innocence but also conveys some of the spirit of Fats Waller’s memorable vocal deconstruction of it. “Blue Orchids,” with Frank Wess, shows the special magic that occurs when Charlap teams up with a horn player in a duo setting. His recent collaborations with saxophonist Jon Gordon, Contrasts (Double Time), and cornetist Warren Vaché, 2Gether (Nagel-Heyer), are further compelling examples.

Formed in 1997 for the pianist’s Criss Cross album All Through the Night, Charlap’s trio is the foundation of many of his musical activities, and the mere mention of Peter Washington and Kenny Washington (unrelated other than musically) is enough to bring a smile to his face. “The first time we played together, it was automatic,” the pianist recalls. “It sounded like a band right away. It’s not me on top of what they’re playing-it’s all three of us together. I can’t say enough about them both individually and together.”

Kenny Washington is equally enthusiastic: “Bill is always open to suggestions. We’ll start playing, and things just happen. The music keeps evolving, and we always have a lot of fun. Bill always manages to pick tunes that I’ve never heard before. They’re great songs, and he makes each of them believable.”

In addition to his busy performance schedule, Charlap has also been doing some teaching recently. He approaches teaching in a refreshingly pragmatic way. “I have no method,” he explains. “Of course I want the students to be technically equipped with a full box of tools-the very basic things. But I also want them to find their own way. I ask them how I can help, and if I feel that I genuinely can’t help them, I’ll tell them.” He also prefers to work on specific problems, adding, “It’s great if a student says, ‘I’d like to learn “All the Things You Are.”‘ Well, there’s a lot to learn about ‘All the Things You Are.’ I’m still learning about it, so we’ll sort of learn together.”

Charlap has already forged a considerable musical legacy. He refuses to speculate on his future directions. “Nothing is forever,” he says, but for the moment, he is enjoying his current wide range of creative activities. Charlap also refuses to draw arbitrary distinctions among the varied musical settings in which he finds himself: “It’s all the same-playing solo, with a singer, in a band. It’s just about listening.”

Originally Published