Bill Charlap: Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein

[23 May 2004]

By Robert R. Calder

Initiative

Has anybody ever entitled a tune “Initiative”? Bill Charlap knows the special questions raised by taking Bernstein songs as bases of jazz performances. The man who “had composed a symphony before he had ever written a song” (as Charlap says) hadn’t been concerned with providing vehicles for jazz improvisers.

A major American composer of immense ambition, Bernstein hoped the Broadway musical might attain an expressive range like the European operatic theatre. He conducted the North American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes with (as it turned out vain) hopes for it as repertoire for a stage he supplied with West Side Story. He had the talent to compose blockbuster musicals, but wasn’t interested. Drawn on here, West Side Story, Wonderful Town, On the Town, and Fancy Free were essays in an American idiom for future development, symphonic and operatic. And why not jazz, though he wasn’t himself able to improvise jazz—if he had been, says one non-hagiographical biographer, he would have done so publicly. Though he could give idiomatic accompaniment to a jazz soloist, the sort of thinking a jazz improviser needs was just precluded by concentration on his other pretty much titanic music concerns. He could have made a career as a concert pianist, as well, but he was too taken up with too much more.

And he didn’t write songs like Jerome Kern or George Gershwin. His songs came out of stage works symphonically conceived, where their stage works were in effect compilations of songs. His musical conception didn’t favour separable items that go easily into the shorthand of melody lines and/or chord sequences jazz improvisers use (such as “The Real Book”). Thelonious Monk was quite insistent that some improvisers on his compositions had lost the music by trying to work from a skeleton, when the actual composition was no such animal and had a body beyond a sheerly bony one. Similar considerations of atmosphere attend Bernstein’s songs, but at a further remove from jazz performance. Bill Charlap has done a considerable job of transcription, a stage further than the Victorians who worked out, for instance, violin-cello-piano or simply piano versions of a Beethoven symphony. It’s all about keeping depth of texture, finding points of reference to preserve the relationship between the initial composition and the jazz performance.

Monk came to mind, listening to the sparky opening of this CD, “Cool” from West Side Story. There is a similar fullness, though not the Monkish one. With a couple of very much chestnut (not Cyrus Chestnut!) exceptions, nothing here is that famous. “America” is the token familiar tune with some jazz history, probably because it was always a pastiche Latin tune in its initial West Side Story setting. Because it’s so familiar, what Charlap’s team do with it is more obvious: the pastiching of Latin and not necessarily Latin Jazz piano, and Kenny Washington’s virtuoso impression of two men, both the “percussionist” and the drummer on a Latin performance. Charlap applies some fragments from elsewhere in West Side Story, evoking more than the pattern of the standard song chorus repeated as the ground of the whole performance. Monk’s solo piano predecessors came along in the wake of ragtime’s set compositions of successive and different contrasting themes, though the last older generation classic ragtime composer—Joseph Lamb, an Irish-American—did start to derive his respective themes each from the others. Big band jazz and jazz composition came out of the ragtime pattern of a composition so many minutes long, rather than the so many minutes of the soloist working over the same basis so many bars long. Earl Hines knew all about the concert version Fats Waller had prepared of “Honeysuckle Rose”, and over however many minutes longer he worked on the theme, he could deliver a performance recognising successive episodes.

Bill Charlap may not be thinking exactly in episodes, but he has to bring in successively various aspects of this and that original to achieve the marriage between given material and creative improvisation. This is a very high-grade piano trio set with many, many musical rewards, because he confronts some of the dangers of the modern piano trio: of declining into a relative anonymity.

This is something of a pioneering template for the performance of Bernstein songs, valuable for the whole repertoire of idiom Bernstein worked out, from lengthy acquaintance with especially the European-American and Jewish-American contribution crucial in jazz from the 1930s on. There has been a mis-identification of jazz with current and deracinated practice, a narrowing of perspective on the music and hence a narrowing of the music. There has also been a tendency to look for refreshment outside jazz, in, for instance, Latin and “World” music, as if there hadn’t already been considerable feedback into jazz from within the ethnic variety of the North American mainland. Here and there and now and then, an increasingly impersonal music has put on some borrowed colours, deferring unduly to dogmas of commercial ideology which dismiss jazz’s more native affinities as somehow of the past. Bill Charlap has certainly contributed to a counter-movement here, not by any historical recreation, but by shouldering a considerable musical challenge.

His one not-blatantly-famous item here with some jazz pedigree is “Big Stuff”, taken up by Gil Evans the first time he had his own band in a studio (another composer taken up that day was Leadbelly!). In piano trio rather than small big band, Bill Charlap gives his bassist, Peter Washington, the composition’s important counter-theme—and what are major bassists for?—not as a piece of studio hack writing-out, but in delivery of the whole basis of the performance. The theme they work from needs more than the one played chorus if it is to be stated fully—and musically rather than cryptically.

That performance is as stunning as some of the others, one of them including a neat little exercise in slow stride. It’s some measure of the high standard of the whole thing that I was initially unhappy with “Somewhere”, which I still think is (perfectly defensibly) here to discourage sillier potential non-buyers for missing a set on themes whose names they don’t recognise. Accept the favour and do yourself one by buying this.

“Somewhere” isn’t quite as big a non-jazz vehicle as “Maria”. A kitschy, musically undiscriminating cocktail pianist might include that in providing semi-jazzy-top-dressing. Ugh! “Somewhere” without the words is entirely emotional swell, and to prevent it from turning into gush, Charlap turns it into Rakhmaninov, an unusual name to think of in any effort designed to establish emotional astringency. But how many of the great jazz standards that opened up harmonic resources in the 1930s were composed by grandsons of men and women born in Russia? Charlap’s performance demonstrates his signal lyrical phrasing, on evidence elsewhere with a remarkable presentation of harmonic (better than) passage work. He can also swing and stomp, and having worked out a programme for the complete jazz pianist with work for the complete bassist and the complete drummer—well, he’s more than the ordinary complete jazz pianist.

(Excuse, please, any lack of detail concerning the surprises all the more remarkable in music not that familiar to me or many jazz specialists. The CD includes software that would enable it, I assume, to be played on an Apple Mac or many other computers. As it plays, this tells me more about the CD whirring round in my drive than does the software I normally use to check on a CD when drafting a review. It doesn’t, however, send any signal to my speakers. I have to disengage it and persuade my usual player to produce the delightful sounds stored on disk with it. If these added electronics were designed to prevent me burning my own copy, they didn’t. I lack both gear and time to burn CDs, and I also lacked the time to persevere and get my equipment to sing this again while writing this review. I ran the CD on my antique hi-fi instead. Full marks to Bill Charlap, not the gowk who loaded this CD with daftware. Full marks very comprehensively earned, and back the CD goes into my non-computer deck.)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/charlapbill-somewhere/