Bill Charlap: America
Bill Charlap (piano)
Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein (Blue Note 7243 5 94807 2 5)
Composed by Leonard Bernstein.
Recorded: New York, October 15-16, 2003
Rating: 98/100 (learn more)
The vocal performance of "America" on the original 1957 Broadway cast recording of West Side Story is pretty much unbeatable, its quasi-Puerto Rican rhythms and immigrant sass and sarcasm still commanding attention today. But the cheery, jeering tune holds its own, and there have been valiant jazz versions over the years too, most notably by the Stan Kenton Orchestra (arranged by Johnny Richards) and an Andre Previn Trio propelled by Shelly Manne.
More recently, pianist Bill Charlap – a mainstay of the revitalized Blue Note Records, and a standards aficionado who often reworks Bernstein melodies – cut a brilliant trio version with piano, bass and drums functioning as equal voices, all three chiming in their rhythmic crosstalk and asides. Peter Washington's plucked-bass solo precipitates the piece ("Puerto Rico, you lovely island..."), with the chatter battle-royal joined a few seconds later, fed by a rapid-fire percussion barrage from the other Washington. Bill's answer seems sedate at first, but he quickly accepts the intricate Latin lead the Washingtons insist on, and then he's gone. He races the melody and drummer, runs the keyboard like Peterson, pounds chords like Monk, and even drops out here and there to let the other guys have their fractious-but-swaying say – a real three-way discussion, this! Then the rhythm suddenly drops away, and Charlap gentles a final coda into silence, sounding like no one but himself. Like the singer of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics in the original production, these three New York jazzmen "like the island Manhattan … Smoke on your pipe and put that in!"
Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher