PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Bill Charlap: Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein

Robert R. Calder

Bill Charlap

Somewhere: the Songs of Leonard Bernstein

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2004-03-23
UK Release Date: 2004-03-22

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.)

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.