Bill Charlap’s Gershwin project programs a selection of Gershwin compositions, adding four distinguished hornmen to his usual and now long-established trio. His previous set, on the music of Leonard Bernstein, involved adapting original Bernstein songs and applying individual approaches to some as vehicles for jazz improvisation. Certainly Bernstein through-composed his stage works; unlike Gershwin’s or Jerome Kern’s, they weren’t combinations of separable songs. More to the point is the suggestion that, like presumably a majority of composers from de Machaut to Paul McCartney (though Bob Wilber did his best with the latter), Bernstein tunes hadn’t the deep structures, harmonic or modal implications of those items from the Great American Songbook jazz has depended on.
Historically, these good jazz vehicles, however the composer planned they would be performed, share various deep textural features with jazz. Improvisers active in the 1930s without academic background in musical theory regarded that standard, or standards repertoire, as crucial. It served as their academy; playing these numbers provided their depth of harmonic awareness. Charlap’s Bernstein project involved collaboration with the composer’s intentions, finding methods of improvising specific to what Bernstein had written, incorporating melodic elements in improvisations, or tempering a performance to the limitations some themes impose: staying within the limits beyond which definition is lost.
The Gershwin set seems to be attempting to define that composer’s voice as it survives in jazz performances based on his songs. It’s all very nice, but what specific Gershwin character the items manifest is actually a little doubtful beyond an element of subtlety.
The musical style doesn’t extend beyond what might have been done in the 1940s, which is not a fault. Charlap throughout plays with a light touch, and maybe there’s some intention to respect the relative quietness of such earlier singers as Fred Astaire. Maybe it’s the band or maybe it’s Charlap. The piano trio “Who Cares?” is swung by Peter Washington’s bass, then “Somebody Loves Me” comes in with a boppish sort of four-horn ensemble. Phil Woods sweeps in sounding lighter-toned than in times past, followed by the impeccably assured, melodically satisfying Slide Hampton on trombone, the man really on form on this date. On trumpet, while Nicholas Payton’s a youngster beside these septuagenarians, the venerable Frank Wess on tenor is a couple of years past 80.
The initial intimacy of the song Gershwin wrote is long gone, the charm it had when delivered in a potentially metronomic, tapdancingly on-the-beat 1920s performing style transfigured. Gershwin more than most created his themes by cramming a Jewish East European harmonic and melodic inspiration into the orthodoxies of something more like WASP, and the admittedly very complex development of ragtime worked out by Gershwin’s teacher Luckey Roberts—who could himself write melodies somewhat redolent of 19th Century Russia.
Dominated by Louis Armstrong, jazz phrasing in the 1930s unpicked the tunes from the older rhythmic regularities and liberated them whether for Sinatra or, say, the major alto-saxophonists Benny Carter and Willie Smith. Aspects of both these saxophonists’ playing show in Phil Woods here, a player with much more depth than merely his inspiration from Charlie Parker.
Frank Wess straddles 1930s swing and the cooler tenor style of the 1950s, Hampton plays slide trombone in a style belying his nickname and suggesting more the valve trombone: bebop, but never sounding clipped or staccato, and here velvety. Young Payton is from New Orleans and has recorded with both Doc Cheatham and Greg Osby and there is no narrowness of response at all.
“Liza” was a jazz vehicle most notably for fast stride piano and the dynamic swing of Chick Webb’s recordings. Here Peter Washington’s scampering bass counterpoints Charlap’s left-hand work, the perfectly timed and articulated right-hand work emulating Teddy Wilson, but seeming barely to touch the keys. This is a presto piece sped on with Kenny Washington’s rapid brushwork, like one of the short song verses singers used to practice delivering on one breath. The trio doesn’t hare through “Lisa” in order to get it over with quickly, but to race to initiate an amazing release with the end: like, wow!
Not least the title “How Long Has This Been Going On” marks a drastic contrast with this. It’s a tenor ballad feature for Wess, cool school with Ben Webster hints: like at times Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen.
The little ensemble opens “A Foggy Day” in another 1950s-ish arrangement with little vibrato. The bassist maintains a walk throughout the swinging soft piano solo and into Hampton’s again meticulously articulated, velvet bop solo. Wess’s tenor enters a cleaner edge, but relaxed, with the bass and the sparking accents of the drummer carrying things forward. Payton comes in only as lead in an arranged ensemble with Charlap operating in the front line with the horns, and a general impression of the rhythmic variety of the preceding solo contributions combining in a dynamic climax.
The program seems to have been devised to build anticipation between each number and the next.
It’s in tight harmony that the four-horn ensemble opens “A Foggy Day” before Woods swoops in for a solo setting a tempo which demands Payton be on his mettle. He is and, entering with a half-muted bark, Wess lays down some rhythmic irregularities for albeit quiet excitement, creating a tension of uncertainty which imposes on Hampton the requirement to take command in his solo. This he does. Peter Washington plays in so much a Ray Brown bag that Charlap’s sound becomes close to Oscar Peterson. Each taking a four bar passage in turn, and coming back, the hornmen build an amazing continuous single improvised melodic line, rather than any sense of contrast, prior to a short ensemble playout. This is an unusual idea.
Charlap then opens “I Was So Young and You Were So Beautiful” with a delicacy breathtaking even on this generally quiet set. A less simpatico bassist than Charlap’s longstanding partner could have trouble maintaining swing without disturbing the fragile dynamics. This relatively uncommon choice might need something unusual, and there’s also a surprise at the end.
Woods ups his solo feature “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” in a style between Benny Carter and Willie Smith, Charlap takes the pace down further in an extended lyrical passage, with a little flitting background phrase from Woods before the piano section is revealed as a transition: Woods comes in again with his combination of bop, Carter, and Smith. Gershwin almost parodied his “Negro” idiom in the harmonies of the tune’s introduction, and Charlap enhances the performance’s poignancy by requoting these at the end.
“Nice Work If You Can Get It” is wake-up music, Payton giving a driving lead to the ensemble. The Washingtons keep things up to the mark as Woods comes on strong in his long-wonted manner. Payton solos well, and Charlap’s boppish contribution peps up with an augmentation of harmonic interest increases. Woods and Payton trade fours till the other two hornmen come in for a playout full of bop licks; and a climax lifting the high-powered playout phrase Bud Powell devised for this mainstay of the repertoire.
Charlap concludes the program with a brief solo performance of “Soon”, and this review concludes with recognition that every listen has seemed to deepen approval of the music here. It’s grown on me decidedly. Nice one.