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Zankel Music Center
Skidmore College
Saratoga, NY
July 5, 2016

by Joe Major
Skidmore Jazz Institute Concert Series director Todd Coolman strode out to introduce Bill Charlap. He iterated the estimable facets of Charlap’s curriculum vitae: masterful pianist, acknowledged gatekeeper of the Americana genre, Grammy Award winner, distinguished professor.
It was that professorial mention that would soon prove prophetic. Despite the leafy groves of academe connotation, Bill Charlap is, like vaunted Scott Joplin-era ragtime cutting-session piano wizards of yore, the reigning heavyweight, consummate killer, “professor!” of the American Songbook. Stand back and watch him work. Charlap’s performance not only seized the proprietary rights to the “Book,” he grabbed the footnotes, too!
He’s always enthusiastically championed music of this vintage, long a part of his recording and performance repertory. He started and finished numbers with end to end sweeping glissandos, and literally vaulted upright, flourishing raised arms in his eagerness to announce their musical and lyric provenance. An unabashed, engaging midway barker, given a long enough leash Charlap would have credited the home towns and astrological signs of his heroes, to boot.   
It’s “de-lovely” being able to take these melodies of a certain age, many of which you knew but forgot you knew, and find the meat one’s looking for. In their dissection, he allowed space for au courant jazz to happen. It happened with the seamless, unified participation of the Washingtons, long-time trio-mates Peter and Kenny, on bass and drums respectively. And for tonight’s quintet format, trumpeter Warren Vaché and tenor sax man Houston Person were on board. Familiarity with the songs, however faint, usually made thematic detours like later-day stop and go hard-comping, say, seem all the more adventurous.
Charlap’s tactical, and tactile, piano approach showcased the irrepressible showman that he is. Whether on “After You’re Gone,” a cardio-taxing piano and drum romp by vaudevillians Layton and Creamer, or when he ever so gently coaxed the lament out of Alan Jay Lerner’s “Too Late Now,” he always struck through the keys, as if there were nectar still to be pressed, even out of the bottom millimeter of hammer action. He drove the group up, down and around Mount Showbiz, dynamically pacing and spacing the pockets so that it seemed perfectly natural for 2016 expressionism to drop into 1930s Broadway stage debuts. On Arthur Schwartz’s “You and the Night and the Music,” Charlap wrung those three title elements into a contemporary, anxious, anticipatory sense of promise. Again and again, with rakish meter-man-Washington patterns on drums, and garrulous bass chatter from the upright-Washington, the tunes spoke to modern relationship drama.
Some numbers had jazzier pedigrees. “You Taught My Heart to Sing,” a McCoy Tyner piece, featured Person on tenor, thoroughly tear-stained in a Sondheim “Send In the Clowns” closing time vein. Billy Strayhorn’s “Day Dream” too, reeked with lush, breathy reminiscence. On Jimmy Van Heusen’s bluesy “The Second Time Around,” Person got totally wee-hours juke joint, using perfect squeals and a stentorian tree trunk yodel that reflected his countless decades on the road.
Warren Vaché was equally versatile, able to bleat plaintively and be tenderly cajoling on Benny Carter’s “Rock Me to Sleep,” and then let loose the dogs on a piano duet of Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up,” going from classical motifs to perky bugle-ish calls to martial stridency. Charlap answered these passages with boogie-woogie phrases, show tune filigree, and any of an endless catalogue of styles, seemingly at his fingertips, that made enticing concoctions of old and new.
On this evening the quintet functioned as a disciplined drill unit with a responsive giddy-up gait, cohesive yet capable of marveling at each other’s solo maneuvers. As chief operating professor! of the Bill Charlap Cavalcade of Music Revue, Charlap engineered the excavation of precious straight ahead jazz ore from already rich mainstream entertainment bedrock.
Joe Major is an inveterate jazz pilgrim for whom the holy grail is always the evocative communion of impression meeting expression. Living over the border in Williamstown, MA, for thirty-plus years, he’s been the grateful beneficiary of countless Williams College performances that have arranged themselves on his ever shifting life list.