Bill Charlap: “I’m Not a Composer”

Pianist Bill Charlap seeks and finds himself in the jazz songbook

Bill Charlap, artistic director of the Jazz in July concert series at 92nd Street Y in NYC (photo by Philippe Levy-Stab)

The new millennium has been a period of worldwide experimentation within the jazz art form. This energy is healthy. Jazz must innovate, or it will stagnate. But when you hear an album like Bill Charlap’s Grammy-nominated Uptown, Downtown, you realize that creative breakthroughs can also occur in the context of, and because of, the inspiration of the great jazz tradition.

“Style” can be a neutral term, meaning simply “approach” or “manner.” But style of surpassing grace and proportion, as practiced by Charlap, becomes art in itself. He is often described as a “mainstream” piano player, but his own understanding is that, as he puts it, “All art is about being yourself, about being driven and guided by your truest inner voice. I’m not feeling responsible to be the custodian of anything. There’s a grand line that goes from Joplin to Jarrett and the present day. For me, it’s about feeling the whole language and finding my way within it. And I love the songwriters. It’s just natural to me. I grew up watching these songs being written.”

His father was “Moose” Charlap, an important composer for the theatre, best known for Peter Pan. His mother, Sandy Stewart, now 80 and still singing, was a regular on The Perry Como Show on NBC in the early 1960s. At the age of 3, Charlap began to play on the piano the songs he heard in this intensely musical household. He graduated from the High School of Performing Arts in New York in 1984, then attended Purchase College. He quit after two years because, he says, “School was getting in the way of what I needed to be doing, which was to get closer to Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Bill Evans.”

He moved into a fifth-floor walk-up on 200th Street in Manhattan, built a sound-proof space within the apartment and rented a piano from Steinway for $100 a month. By day he practiced and by night he took “the ‘A’ train downtown—the other way—to hear people like Kenny Barron at places like Bradley’s.” A friend, pianist Bill Mays, recommended Charlap to replace him when he left the Gerry Mulligan band. Charlap took the gig at 22 and has never looked back. Today he is the fulltime Director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University, runs the “Jazz in July” series at New York’s 92nd Street Y, and continues to tour extensively and record consistently. His household is still musical. He is married to pianist Renee Rosnes, and the living room of their home in New Jersey contains two Steinway grand pianos.

His trio with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington has been together for 20 years, and Uptown, Downtown is their ninth album. The program is nine tunes, some famous (“Sophisticated Lady”), some not (Gigi Gryce’s “Satellite”), from the classic American Songbook and jazz. “I’m not a composer,” Charlap admits. “My calling is to be an improvising jazz musician, interacting with other musicians, staying extemporaneous all the time.

“Every piece on Uptown, Downtown is there for a reason,” he continues. “It connects to me personally.” When he talks about the songs, it is an outpouring of free association and intimate memory. He played “Curtains” with its composer, Gerry Mulligan. Stephen Sondheim (Charlap calls him “Steve”), who wrote the title track, knew and loved the music of Charlap’s father. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman, may be the most stunning moment on the album. “It is a song that has been speaking to me for years and years,” Charlap says. He first heard it interpreted by Sarah Vaughan, on a record in his parents’ collection, in an arrangement by Don Costa, who also arranged songs for his mother. His version is halting, episodic and fervent, a memoir, a summation of what he has learned about life and himself from the song. “Fran Landesman’s lyrics inform the way I play it,” Charlap says. “[Composer] Alan Bergman once said to me, ‘The notes should drip off the words.’”

Charlap’s touch with ballads makes you think of Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. “When you play a ballad you must play the music but also listen to it,” he explains. “You become part of the experience; you don’t force the experience. You sing the song.” Something else he has in common with those two pianists is his sensitivity in playing for singers, and he has worked with Tony Bennett, Shirley Horn and Cécile McLorin Salvant, among many others. “When you accompany singers you learn color choices,” he says. “You learn what to leave out. Jimmy Rowles used to say, ‘If you have an idea, play half of it.’”

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Uptown Downtown by the Bill Charlap Trio on iTunes.