The art of the jazz piano trio sits in amber in the Smithsonian Institution, in a way. The form—elegant, conversational, sophisticated, swinging, often gorgeous—was essentially perfected in the 1960s by pianists such as Bill Evans, Herbie Nichols, Cedar Walton, Chick Corea. The list is long. Of course, as the pandemic reminded us, we still very much need clubs that pulse with this sound. But what does a new recording add to the art?
There isn’t anything precisely new on Street of Dreams by Bill Charlap‘s trio. The trio have been together since 1997, the eight compositions here are also quite well known, and even the renewed pairing of band and Blue Note Records is a throwback to a while ago. But the magic with this band is not in novelty. It is in subtle invention, which makes even old things, tried and true things, sparkle in the moment. Street of Dreams, upon a careful listen, is diamond excellent.
“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” is a ballad by Michel Legrand, written for the 1969 film The Happy Ending. With lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, it was frequently covered in the 1970s but has been lost for modern jazz players. Charlap, along with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, revives it here, taking away its melodrama and creating a masterpiece. How do they do it? First, they leave out every inessential note, painting it as a watercolor. It begins as a minimal piano solo, with bass and brushes entering after one section. Each player is so quiet and sensitive that the slightest quiver from each of them is limned in sonic silver. They cut it back to solo piano again before the real improvising starts and then play a trio chorus that sounds like it has no single improviser, truly. Charlap listens and listens, the bass is wonderfully melodic around him, and every chirp from the hi-hat or shhhvvving from the ride cymbal is a streak of color.
The result of this particular outstanding performance is a complete reinvention of “What Are You Doing”—a version that seems as open as a free improvisation because the trio is impeccably unhurried and comfortable. The song remains beautiful, but the importance of its written melody and chordal structure diminishes when we find ourselves listening, mainly for the drama of how these three artists gently, ingeniously play with the openness they create in the middle of the tune.
At midtempo, the trio does much the same thing with Dave Brubeck’s enduring song “The Duke”. This piece gets played often, and its structure is famously tricky, ambling across all 12 chromatic tones, the chords shifting with something like cleverness. Charlap refuses to give in to any fussiness, so at home on the tune that he begins with a solo and trio statement that leaves out the melody and trusts the simplest harmonic movements, keeping intervals small and cool. The performance then heats up very slowly, with the density of information in the melodic statement, improvisation, and rhythm attack increasing but never abandoning a certain tossed-off feeling.
On “The Duke” and elsewhere, there are a handful of genuinely Charlapian touches: thumped notes very low in the piano’s register at the end of a phrase, for example, or rippling single-note lines that alternate with chordal sections of improvisation. At times, Kenny Washington seems so in tune with the pianist that he cracks his snare just as Charlap gets percussive, the trio as synchronized as a horse and an expert rider.
One of the hippest tunes here is by guitarist Kenny Burrell, “Your Host”. It is given a very straightforward reading, Kenny swinging with his brushes all the way, but with tiny shocks of stopping that power the tune along. Similarly, the standard “Out of Nowhere” swings with some pep, starting with a quiet but propulsive bass solo but then allowing the drums to be powered by sticks as Charlap plays his most playful, popping solo. These uncomplicated arrangements benefit from improvising that is worth listening to in every measure.
The margins for success with a recording like Street of Dreams are narrow. The pure class of a band like this can easily slide into sounding like some easy listening stuff—lounge piano on a good day. But I think that Charlap, Washington, and Washington know that very well. And they get the little moments just right so that this recording’s “loungiest” moments are always killer good rather than cliched. For example, the title track is taken at a slow mid-tempo, leaving the band lots of open space for hip shifts away from the entirely expected. In the first chorus of minimalist improvisation, Peter Washing keeps the time with a combination of half and quarter notes, placing them on and sometimes behind the beat. Piano and drums occasionally anticipate a harmonic change or place in a slippery stepdown of chords. Then, for the last two minutes, they repeat a bluesy descending tag that lets them get a bit dirty to close the recording out. What might have been another jazz ballad lifts off the ground on the helium of a band that knows that the art is in the little things, done brilliantly.
The result is utterly traditional in overall form but simultaneously requires the kind of super-careful listening you might give to the new Henry Threadgill session. Bill Charlap is not so much leading a neo-traditionalism movement as he is playing a traditional style well—and with as much nuanced artfulness— as anyone in his generation.
Don’t tune in because you like the old tunes or the way jazz “used to sound”. Check out this group because you believe in quiet reinvention, subtlety, addition-by-subtraction, and perfectly placed notes. Listen to Street of Dreams because you like the sound of musicians listening to each other. Peter Washington, Kenny Washington, and Bill Charlap are listening electrically on this new recording.