The Bill Charlap Trio, with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, has now been together for 20 years. Their nine albums should go in a time capsule, to show future generations what a state-of-the-art mainstream piano trio sounded like around the turn of the 21st century. Charlap is an example of how style, at its most advanced, is not merely a set of identifying characteristics. It is an aesthetic destination, indivisible from substance.
He is occasionally criticized for being too conservative. On Uptown Downtown there is not a single original. But Charlap proves the validity of interpreting worthwhile tunes that already exist, especially neglected ones like Gerry Mulligan’s “Curtains,” Jim Hall’s “Bon Ami” and Stephen Sondheim’s title track. When he plays “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else,” he traces the century-old melody in one long, unbroken single-note line. He renders its essence in a quick, seemingly effortless gesture, like Picasso with a pencil stroke. When he expands upon his source material, each note is precise as a pearl, and he streams fresh ideas that tie to a whole. Charlap thinks in well-proportioned finished forms.
In one respect his ensemble truly is conservative. Bill Evans opened the piano trio into a three-way interaction 60 years ago, but Charlap still prefers piano-plus-accompaniment. The two (unrelated) Washingtons rarely solo. But Peter plays some of the most supple, motivational basslines in jazz. He won’t let this trio not swing.
Charlap makes old songs relevant. “There’s a Small Hotel” is no longer quaint and sentimental. Its new melodic details stand on their own, independent of time. “Sophisticated Lady” is brief, loose and definitive. Charlap lingers over “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” for eight minutes, in hovering incomplete phrases and silences, followed by tentative resolutions. Fran Landesman’s wonderfully wry lyrics are absent, but the right pianist can go where vocalists can’t, to places without denotation, places of limitless elusive connotation.