In conversation with bill charlap
By Ted Panken
"Iíve really been running the last two days," said Bill Charlap in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, a block east of the Times Square theater district. It was mid-afternoon on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and Charlap was anticipating night five of the first week of a fortnight engagement at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola with Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, his trio partners since 1997.
Charlap, who looked none the worse for wear, was referencing a duo recording heíd made on the previous afternoon with alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, a close friend since both were classmates at New Yorkís High School of Performing Arts at the cusp of the Ď80s. "I drove out after the gig on Thursday, stayed in the Delaware Water Gap, recorded with Jon, drove back to Manhattan, and played three sets," Charlap said. "I was really hurting."
The trio was playing its first extended engagement since the end of 2008. During the five-month interim, Charlap had been on the road as band pianist and de facto music director of the Blue Note 7, an all-star groupóNicholas Payton, trumpet; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drumsóassembled for the purpose of playing iconic repertoire from the Blue Note Records catalog in observance of the labelís 75th anniversary. Reunited with his trio, Charlap now was ready to return to his first love, the Great American Songbook, which was at its apogee during the Ď30s and Ď40s, when such classy writers and legendary wits as Dorothy Parker, George Kaufman, and S.L. Perelman frequented the Algonquin Roundtable.
A quick glance at Charlapís recorded c.v. makes it clear how intimate a relationship he enjoys with this material. On the 2004-05 albums Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul, Somewhere, and Begin The Beguine (the latter made for the Japanese market), Charlap, now 42, celebrated repertoire, respectively, by George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Cole Porter. Stardust, from 2000, is a vivid exploration of the world of Hoagy Carmichael, while Love You Madly, from 2003, is a kaleidoscopic tour of Ellingtonia.
On eight other trio albums recorded 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 periodóincluding his late father, Morris "Moose" Charlap, who composed the score for the original Broadway production of 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, documenting Charlapís first meeting with Peter and Kenny Washington---with "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 doesnít 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, ĎWhere Or Whení has many repeated notes, but each note has a word, and those words inform the playing."
This is the trioís first extended run in some time, its longest period of inactivity since it formed. Has this break had an impact?
Well, I can only sayóand maybe itís just part of getting older and part of our experience together as a groupóthat 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?
Itís not even necessarily about having been away, or working with the Blue Note 7, or anything like that. Itís 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. Iím not saying that the Blue Note 7 was less important. That was very important, too. But the trio is central to my musical world, and continues to expand and deepen. While we're at ease playing together, it's still a challenge. If it's not, there wouldnít 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 Iíll reassess a couple of things, or change tempos. I feel that itís expanding in its scopeóthe 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. Iím sure that has something to do with it, too.
Whatís 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 timeís gone on, Iíve realized that there is a side of me that is an arranger and loves to come up with concepts for the trio or myselfóor ways of playing a piece. Sometimes an arrangement means a harmonic arrangement or a harmonic approach, maybe just a vibe. Sometimes itís 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 donít know the exact answer. I think itís a balance of a number of things. Sometimes Iíll 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 weíll approach it.
What I find happening in the trioówhich is very gratifying and fun for me and for usóis 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. Itís almost like when you hear a concert pianist, like Rubinstein, play a Chopin waltz heís played 300 timesóthe idea is not to waste any moment of it. Itís what Iím talking about in regard to oneís priorities as you grow as a musicianóit becomes more important not to waste. Each time you play is precious, in the sense that ... Itís that old song, 'For All We Know, We May Never Meet Again.' Nobody knows.
Itís really worth a lot each time youíre 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 itís good to really value it all the time. I think thatís part of what Iím 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 couldnít say thereís a percentage. Certainly, though, I like having a point of view for each piece. Even if itís improvised, I think the arrangerís 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. Heís so fast at listening to everything, the right and the left hand, all the cues, that heíll hear something, and tailor it. Right away. Sometimes itís intuitiveóoften, as we know each other musically so well now, weíll hear each other giving the cue, and take educated guesses that sometimes come out right. Even when they donít, the pieces of the puzzle, at its best, fit like a good Swiss watch.
Letís talk about Blue Note 7 for a bit. It was put together as kind of front group to market Blue Noteís 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 didnít 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 itís useful in a band to have somebody who does that. Itís not always the easiest thing to have a group where you have seven heads of state. Iím not even saying that Iím the head of state ...
Well, youíve made a similar comment about the trio as well.
Yes. Well, I think itís good to say, 'What do you feel like playing tonight?' Or, if somebody says, 'Letís do this,' maybe thatís 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. Thatís where theyíre going to play their best. Itís not a solo gig, so itís good to have some direction, but you donít need to be a boss. Ever. I think there is a way of allowing everybody some space. That doesnít mean there might not be a time when you say, 'Well, I really donít want to do that right now; letís do that the next set.' That doesnít mean that there isnít 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, 'Weíre 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 Ďclassic Blue Note material?í'ójust 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-Ď50s to late-Ď60s, essentially the great period of modern jazz when youíre talking about the classic albums of the great composers-playersóJoe 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 itís music I love to play anyway. Itís 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 musicóit is still the paradigm of small-group playing in terms of all the music thatís there. And all of us in this group grew up with that music. We all grew up with Maiden Voyageand Blue Train and In and Out and Speak Like a Child and Ju-Ju and the The Real McCoy, The Amazing Bud Powellóall the records.
So that was attractive right away. I said, 'Well, thatís 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 canít 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, thatís very nice, but this is a group of very accomplished, important players, and I wouldnít 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 ... Itís a 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)óSmithsonian Institution type of things. That wasnít 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. Thatís 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 didnít want to recompose them so much as illuminate whatís 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. Thatís just a natural. Nobody was told, 'do this and do that, and donít 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. Thatís all that it should have been.
Finally, we made the album very quickly, with one or two rehearsals. We did it in May 2008, recording during the day while I was playing at Dizzyís at night. I canít do this kind of thing any more; itís really getting too tiring. But we made it happen; everybody wanted to make it happen. The playersí 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 Iím 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 wouldnít have all up-tempos, or all ballads, or all swinging thingsóall 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; Iíll do that.' Or sometimes someone said, 'well, thatís good, but I like this a little better.' Always I would say, 'Yes, ok, thatís 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 with Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods, and 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 a larger ensemble. Can you speak to the way you approach the flow of a piece when youíre not the lead voice?
Itís balance. Just like anything else, you make a concert, you want to make sure everybodyís got some space to shine and that everybody gets a chance to play enough. Thereís a big band aesthetic, because you canít 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 donít I give my solo to him? He hasnít played too much.' Thatís the type of maturity Iím talking about.
But as for me, Iíve certainly played plenty with horn players and in large ensembles, big bands. Maybe not recorded myself that way under my own name. Iíve 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 werenít so worthwhile.
Sometimes not. But theyíre all worthwhile when youíre cutting your teeth. Play with a lousy singer who plays in the weirdest keys and canít quite keep things togetheróbecause it will teach you.
Youíre also artistic director of the Jazz in July concert series at the 92nd Street Y, 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 artistís 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. Thatís what itís about.
Dick Hyman did that for twenty years before me. Heís my distant cousin on my fatherís side, and heís 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. Heís such a great artist and professional, I learned a great deal from that. Types of things you couldnít 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. Donít 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 thatís 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 Iím in my fifth year.
But you were a close observer of it before.
Yes. Itís a New York jazz festival, and whatís 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 Carrollóso many great people who are world-class on any level. Over the last five years, weíve had everyone from Billy Taylor to Hank Jones, Wynton Marsalis ... In a sense, these are all New York players, so itís 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.
Thereís also a concert devoted to Sondheim and Jule Styne. Thereís 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?
Itís just music that I love.
Why Vince Guaraldi, for example?
I always loved Vinceís music. This is one of the places where jazz has gotten into peopleís 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. Itís really soulful. There was a lot of optimism in his sound. Anyway, itís 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, 'Iíve got to find out who that guy is; thatís 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 theyíre played and the concept of it. But thereís a lot more Guaraldi music. 'Christmas Time Is Here,' which weíll do, even though itís summer in July at a Jewish institution. But thatís ok. Itís 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? Thatís what I mean by New York.
It would seem that only one of the concerts, 'Saxophone Summit,' doesnít draw directly on some component of your experience. Sondheim and Styne is another layer of songbook repertoire, musical theater repertoire. 'With Respect To Oscar'óI donít 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.
Thatís true. I love Gerryís 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. Theyíre very tuneful. You leave the theater singing them, in a sense. So thereís a great influence there. Yet theyíre 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 pianoís 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 didnít want the piano player to just comp along. He wanted a more orchestral approach. It got me thinking. Thatís all. I also would pull his coat about some of his classic things, particularly Birth of the Cool and the tentet things that he did later. Iíd 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. Iíd start writing something, or playing something, or arranging, and say, 'Hmm, Gerryís 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, Iím trying to recall whether you have or havenít incorporated Sondheim repertoire in your trio.
Thereís one Sondheim tune in my book. Itís called 'Uptown, Downtown.' It was cut from Follies. Itís a wonderful tune, one of the few Sondheim songs that you can really swing. Iíve played Sondheimís 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 Sondheimís theater music; heís the logical extension of all of the giants.
Itís often been remarked that, perhaps because youíre 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 couldnít 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 Iím sure your mother knew a ton of songs [Charlap's mother is the singer Sandy Stewart].
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? Itís 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 Monkís 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; itís not something Iíve 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. Itís just another huge piece of American music, and a huge piece of the repertoire for jazz musicians. So to me, it didnít 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 for another way of thinking. This was my fatherís 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 tryoutsóand all of that world. But Iím a jazz musician. I am lucky to have had a window into that world. So thatís 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 instance, knows everything about musical theater, but he isnít a jazz musician.
Well, I donít know everything about musical theater 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 Monkís 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 teensóI 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; heís too important.' So a light went on in my head. I said, 'Well, you should probably be able to say yes.' But itís never scholastic with me. Really Iím a fan. Iím a fan of Wayne Shorter and Iím a fan of Irving Berlin.
But the one point I wanted to make is, in learning the songs, to me, itís learning the lyrics, too, because theyíre part and parcel of the same thing. The lyric will inform you how to phrase a melody. Or, what it is that youíre doing in not phrasing the melody. I just want to have a full box of tools before I make the choice.
Iím 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 wasnít 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 aspiring musician from New York and the opportunities that it affords?
Itís 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 Bradleyís 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 youíre exposed to musicians of that level, as close as you could be in a place like Bradleyís ... You could sit right there. Geez! Tommy Flanaganís playing right in front of you. What better lesson is that? I like what Ed Koch said about New York. Iím misquoting, but he said something like, 'If youíre one in a million, thereíre 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 didnít study classical music, but it was way later. I was already playing theater songs on my own, improvising, and whatever else I was playingóit didnít 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 itís 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 named 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 Goodmanís Orchestra, he was on the Merv Griffin Showóa 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. Thatís 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 itís not true.
But the references are there, because you heard them.
There isnít anyone that he mentioned that I donít love. There are many more he didnít mention that I also love. And I donít remember what the short list was.
I can read it to you.
No, Iíll 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.'
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 itís 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 donít think you would do something like that with this trio, for instance.
Well, I might have some element of that existing in there. I wouldnít say that I couldnít and wouldnít. Things have happened like that. Itís a matter of taste, thatís all, or whatever ...
Everybody grows, everybody crystallizes their ideas, everybody develops an aesthetic that suits them for the different places they find themselves. Iím 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.
Itís very hard to say that. Itís almost something I canít 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 peopleís aesthetics. I donít need them to be the same as mine to really appreciate them.
Iím talking about your aesthetic.
I wouldnít even want to say Iím trying to do this or Iím trying to do that. Because I canít 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 thereís a purity to the aesthetic that appeals to me. I just like beauty. What can I say?
Youíve made that statement: 'Truth and beauty.'
Well, I didnít invent it. Itís what Bill Evans told Tony Bennett before he died. I think that itís 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. Itís right there.
You have another trio, the New York Trio, with Jay Leonhart on bass and Bill Stewart on drums, that you donít perform with, but record with, which has made almost as many records, all for the Japanese market, as this trio.
I wouldnít exactly say, though, itís another trio that I have. Itís 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 Iíve recorded with, but I still wouldnít ...
But itís 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 weíre going to record an album. Weíre not going to be working on this material over time. Also, if an album is brought to me, it may be the producerís concept: 'Weíd like to do a Richard Rodgers album.' Well, I think about these players playing this music, and maybe wouldnít 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, weíre not rehearsing. Weíre recording right away, going right to it, and letting it go. Often, itís 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. Itís 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 trio.
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 Jazz Collective, which has a very different approach.
That's true. They focus on original compositions as well as those of the composers they're focusing on that year. They're a great band.
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 itís 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. Thatís what you want. As musicians, we are in the incredibly lucky position that weíre able to work and get paid for doing what we love doing. Itís 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 Iíve 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 Iíve done that hasnít been done with somebody elseís idea of what it should be, and thatís very fortunate. So the reward is right there in the music.
With the exception of Live at the Village Vanguard, which documents a live performance, most of your recordings for Blue Note have been thematic. Iím wondering if you can speak to the benefits and pitfalls of doing repertoire-directed sessions where the repertoire is arbitrarily selected.
Theyíre all different; each one begs a different answer. Thereís no downside to it. I wouldnít call it a downside; itís a challenge ...
I said pitfall.
Thereís also no pitfall. Itís like doing Bernsteinís music. The only pitfall (and I wouldnít call it a pitfall; Iíd 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. Thatís a challenge. But itís a welcome challenge. The reason for doing a composer or a point of view? Very simply, itís 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 Carmichaelís music has a personality. Gershwinís music has a personality. Bernstein has a personality. So finding a program that works as a program ... again, itís like the Blue Note 7. You donít want eight ballads. You donít want eight up-tempos. You donít 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.
Itís music that has a personality, but then it also has to suit your collective personality.
Itís 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 Ď70s and Ď80s and Ď90s and Ď00s that you consider to be ripe for similar interpretation?
Itís different. Most of these songs, the great songs, come out of American musical theater, and there really wasnít that much from American musical theater in the same way ... Our culture changed. It completely changed. People werenít 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, itís the English infiltration of the theater when youíre 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 didnít 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 doesnít mean that Kern was not a real composer. I donít 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 Legrandóalthough you may consider him part of an older tradition of writing, and thatís probably true. Johnny Mandel. Itís different. Much of the popular music today wouldnít appeal to me. Not that it isnít good. Not that itís 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 chordsóand thatís 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 donít think thereís 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 theyíre 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 itís 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 itís very differently-built. Thatís 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.
Iím not asking you to judge what he does, but that sort of repertoire ...
Itís 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 Ď81-Ď82-Ď83 ...
Stevie Wonderís pretty good! Iím sorry. I was still answering the other question. Iíd like to play 'If Itís Magic.' Thatís 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, thatís very much a bebop time feel.
Iím sure thatís partly because of Kennyís presence.
No, itís not just because of Kenny. Thatís the center of my musical world for sure.
I donít think thatís necessarily the intuitive feel for most pianists born after the Baby Boom. For me, thatís 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 ... Thereís all different places within it, everywhere from Wynton Kelly through Herbie Hancock. But itís still about swinging. Itís still about playing within a rhythm section. Maybe I happen to feel post-bop things and bop thingsóand beyondóall together. Thereís a lot of that together. If you think about Oscar Peterson, heís playing harmonically all kinds of things, but thereís a swing feel to his playing thatís not really like Bud Powell. Itís more Nat Cole. Then you just get into personalities. He had such a strong personality that itís Oscar Peterson music. Itís just not categorizable any more.
But as far as the 'young lions,' when I was coming up I didnít feel negative about it at all. I always felt, 'Well, thatís good; itís good that people are immersing themselves in something thatís 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, thatís for now, and thatís a good thing. That wonít last forever. Nothing else lasts forever. Thatís 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 donít 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 donít feel that way. I donít think most great musicians do. It just doesnít interest me to think that way. But also, if you really, really love something, and if youíre an artist, there is sometimes some myopia. You have to have it. You have to be able to focus very finitely on something. So itís a delicate balance. Itís personal. I just thought, 'Well, thatís another way to do it; that way is good, too.' Thatís how I really felt. I never felt that it negated what somebody else who didnít do that, did, and I didnít feel that they negated what ... Quality is quality. Thatís 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, theyíre 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 canít put into words. Thereís a feeling there.
Someone who was very important to me was Eddie Locke, the drummer, whom Iíve 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. Heís 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. Heís been like family to me over the years. Thereís been a lot to glean from being around a person like that. I also was lucky that I had great teachers. Jack Reilly, 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 musicóa 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. Iím 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 itís 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 Washingtonís and Peter Washingtonís playing so great, is that they are virtuosos on their respective instrumentsóand 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 thatís 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. Thatís what differentiates a Coleman Hawkins from a very fine, educated tenor playeróall 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 canít either, can you.
You canít. Not if you want to honor how great this music isóand also not if you want to keep the gig. And why would you want to? Finally, to me, itís 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 thatís relevant to you?
Well, I donít know. I only know what I know. Not to quote a lyric ... itís in 'Time After Time.' Not Cyndi Lauperís. But there probably is such a thing. Maybe it has to do with bebop and swinging. But Iím 42, so Iím not on the street with the 20-year-olds any more. I think things are changing a great deal. I donít think itís about bebop maybe as much. These days, itís about odd time, changing time signatures, and not always about swinging. To me thatís a shame. Because if youíre missing that quarter-note and that feeling, youíre missing something very important to the sound of our music. Not to sound like an old fogey, but I think thatís absolutely central. The blues is central. Being part of a family tree musically is central. Thereís no outsider art in jazz. Itís 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 donít think you can really bring something 'original' without being a part of the canon, and I donít think you can seek out just being original. I mean, you canít think of someone more original than Monk, but Monk wouldnít be Monk without Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. It wouldnít exist that way. Coltrane wouldnít 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 Dadís 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? Youíve recorded together.
Sheís a beautiful singer. She really reads a lyric, and sheís a great musician. Weíre 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. Iím 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.