Bill Charlap: Life, Love, Songs, and Pianos Page 2

Matson: How many tunes do you have in your head at this point? Five hundred? A thousand?

Charlap: I don't know—more than that, maybe. It's not that for a jazz musician we just remember E-flat-minor-seven. In my case, I take the whole piece—it is the lyrics, the melody, the harmony, the composer's aesthetic, the jazzman's aesthetic, and all the things in between that shape the vision of the song.

[We listen to "Too Late Now," by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner, from the Bill Charlap Trio's Notes from New York (2016, Impulse! B0024830-02).]

Matson: I love the way you respect the lyrics. I can hear the words—even when no one is singing.

Charlap: [recites lyrics] "All the things we've done together / I relive when we're apart. / All the tender fun together / stays on in my heart." [listens] And Kenny and Peter understand the depth of this too. Yeah, I'm pleased with this. I learned the song from my mother singing it, so that's what I hear in my mind when I hear the words. Burton Lane was a friend of hers, and a lovely, beautiful man. James Farber, the engineer—a master. Truly, it is the best sound we've ever had, and a reflection of our trio. The lyrics and the music are 50-50 with me—they really are. It's impossible for me to play a song without playing the lyric—it's not tacked on, it's part of the DNA, it tells you what to play. I appreciate that you recognize that.

Matson: And from the other end of the telescope, if you will: A master like Tony Bennett is hearing the melody, the harmony, all of that.

Charlap: That's right, and Bennett hears it and reacts to it—that's part of what makes his singing so great. He's reacting to what's around him, he's part of the process—he's not singing on top of the group. He's part of the group. Same for Diana. That's what it is that makes it special. I can play a chord, and Tony goes "Ooh . . ." Remember, he's a painter too.

Matson: Pick a few of your recordings that you particularly like the sound of, as well as the performance.

Charlap: Joel Moss is also a marvelous engineer, and has a different perspective from James Farber. We made some beautiful records for Blue Note. I love the sound of the record that Renee and I made as a duet [Double Portrait, Blue Note 27560 2]. It's a different type of two-piano sound. We don't even know who's playing what—it sounds like one great orchestral piano. Also, the trio on our very first album, All Through the Night (Criss Cross Jazz 1153CD), recorded by Max Bolleman, who was a wonderful engineer who kind of took some things from Rudy Van Gelder's playbook.


Matson: Do you listen in a hi-fi setting at home?

Charlap: I'm not set up right now, but I have been at other times in my life. Right now, most of my listening is in the car, running from here to there. One time I had a Luxman amp and Dahlquist speakers that I liked a whole bunch.

Matson: Now we're talking the Stereophile talk! [laughs] Let's talk about pianos. What do you and your wife have at home?

Charlap: We both own Steinway L's. There are a number of truly glorious pianos that are part of the Steinway Concert and Artists Department, and one of the greatest is one that I played on Notes from New York. I can't remember the number of it—I have a sheet of paper at home where I write them down.

Matson: I've often read over the years that "jazz improvisation is composing in real time." Do you buy that?

Charlap: No. I think the elements of composition and structure are certainly informing how we work. But a composer sees the entire boardwalk. An improviser is walking down the boardwalk, and taking time to look at different things. But you're using everything—you're using the instant arranger, you're using the instinct of the composer, you're using compositional devices. And all of that gets put aside when it's time to play. It's a very special art, the improviser's art. It's like there are three places: one is this intense concentration where you are deeply inside everything you're doing, one is sitting back and letting your fingers do the walking, and there's one in between that's like a half-full helium balloon—like driving a really good car.

Matson: Piano trio—comment on that format, and how it works for you.

Charlap: It's a small group, and it's an orchestra. It's a three-way conversation. Of course, it's also the individuals you are with. Peter Washington and Kenny Washington are master musicians with an incredibly deep understanding. It's about combinations, and rhythm sections.


Matson: Do you feel the great early stereo recordings of jazz can get you close to the feel of a live jazz performance?

Charlap: Yes and no. Remember, Rudy Van Gelder has a sonic palette in his mind of the perfect way he wants to hear things—he wants to hear the drums and the bass fat and around the group. Kenny Washington said an interesting thing to me about this—that Rudy's recordings influenced the sound he wanted to make on the drums!

Matson: Recording techniques: "snapshot" or "oil painting"? Live to stereo, or modern digital editing technology?

Charlap: There's the Lennie Tristano perspective, that you're lying if you redo anything. Then there's the Glenn Gould view, that the recording studio is also an instrument, so why not use it? I fall in between. That said, you're making a jazz record, and most of the best jazz is going to be made when you play it live. So it's really good to view it as "Let's get to it, and give everything we can to this moment." And a snapshot of that moment will probably be beautiful. I can really feel that as a sideman. I always liked that with Phil Woods, because I knew that you'd better catch that train the first time, because he is not going to go back. For that matter, you record something with Tony Bennett—if he's going to grab it, you don't want to blow it!

Allen Fant's picture

Thank You! SM
for such an excellent piece on BC. Been a big fan of his trio as well as his lovely wife RR, for a long time. Happy Holidays!

NeilS's picture

I especially liked Bill Charlap's thoughtful comments on improvisation. My favorite contemporary jazz pianist.

Also, if you're reading this, Mr. Charlap, a big thank you to you and your label for somehow resisting the loudness wars that have infiltrated the jazz genre, a gift to both current and future generations for the opportunity to hear you and your trio with the subtlety, shadow, depth and emotion that the wide dynamic range on your recordings reveals.

stereodesk's picture

Thanks Sasha and Bill. Nice to hear that All Through the Night is a favorite...that big Baldwin SD10 comes through as though you're propped up right on its edge. Sound aside, thanks for the music.