Bill Charlap: Life, Love, Songs, and Pianos Sidebar: A Jazz Rorschach Test

Sidebar: A Jazz Rorschach Test

We adjourned to a restaurant for lunch—I'd forewarned Bill Charlap that I would be conducting a Jazz Rorschach Test I'd created for him. Between bites, he gave me quick responses to a list of great songwriters, composers, pianists, and singers I ran by him in no particular order:

Johnny Mercer—Swing. The American Poet. Genius of language. Every word drips off the notes that he writes.

Irving Berlin—America. The center of what it is to be an American songwriter.

Cole Porter—Sexy. The risk-taker, and the great developmental composer. He's like Beethoven, it's a little cell. The courage to go the places he goes, straight to the heart.

Leonard Bernstein—Charisma. New York. Tough and crazy. Wild and generous.

Hoagy Carmichael—Aw, shucks. Except—that's a persona. Also, the sound of a particular kind of jazz in songwriting. And rural—though that's something he created.

Stephen Sondheim—The great American musical-theater composer of today. An extension of all the people he loves. Brave. The craft.


The Beatles—The greatest rock'n'roll group of all time. They did everything first. The greatest phrases.

Duke Ellington—The emancipator. A symbol of African-American genius. And class. And imagination. A new music. An amalgamator.

Rodgers & Hart—Brahms and heart. And I mean heart like courage. Up against the wall, and living on the edge—because that's Larry Hart.

Rodgers & Hammerstein—It is more about the theater than it is about the song. Transcendence into humanity. The great sweep of Rodgers the composer.

Wayne Shorter—Lyrical improviser—no one makes more of the interval of the octave.

Herbie Hancock—Maybe the greatest modern jazz pianist. Herbie is Bach—he's the past, present, and future, all at the same time.

Chick Corea—Swashbuckling. Flamenco piano. And the word play.

Dave Brubeck—Love, God, and grace. And joy. Whatever that pill is he's taking, I want one of those.

Marian McPartland—Sharp, tough, open, witty, courageous, female.

Erroll Garner—Sanctified. An orchestra.

Oscar Peterson—Overwhelming virtuosity, and not just at the piano but as a musical thinker. The Blues. The Church.

Bill Evans—Truth and beauty. He's a giant—of any type of art or music. Profound melodic language. Deeply original. Stringent. A colossal mind.

Basie—Swing. Dance. The rhythm section. The groove.

Professor Longhair—The blues is American music. He's at the essence of the music.

Tommy Flanagan—The Jazz Poet. He makes it seem so easy.


Shirley Horn—Aahh. The modern-day Billie Holiday. And the greatest accompanist ever—that's the way to accompany a singer, the way Shirley played for herself.

Blossom Dearie—Blossom loved the song. It was all about getting the story across. You go to Blossom, you're going to learn some tunes.

Thelonious Monk—Picasso. The architect of modern jazz. And the piano is not a European instrument any more, it's an African instrument.

Art Tatum—The greatest piano player of all time, period, bar none. That's the end of it. It's not just the technique—it's imagination.

Teddy Wilson—Perfection. Touch. The door that swings open for modern jazz piano.

Bobby Short—Charisma. Optimism. You are lifted up. He raised your feeling of how great it is to celebrate being a human being. Effervescent.

Matson: You passed.

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.