Bill Charlap

Written in the Stars

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This is the sort of album that gives the mainstream a good name. It's wonderfully recorded, especially at the low end of the spectrum: Peter Washington's bass and Kenny Washington's kick drum speak with authority yet never overwhelm Charlap's piano. The trio's approach is distinctive, marked by tight and fairly elaborate arrangements, thrilling shifts in tempo, and wholly surprising modulations and harmonic choices on Charlap's part. The overall classicism of the group's sound recalls Tommy Flanagan. Charlap is at his most animated on the opener, a brisk reading of Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night." He's more laid-back and deliberate on midtempo tracks like Johnny Mercer's "Dream" and the Gershwins' "Lorelei," where the Washingtons' bone-deep sense of swing really comes to the fore. Another, even more contemplative side of Charlap comes out on an achingly slow "One for My Baby" and a pair of Harold Arlen tunes, "The Man That Got Away" and "It Was Written In the Stars." However, the most comprehensive and bracing showcases of Charlap's talent are Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" and Frank Loesser's "Slow Boat to China." Setting up the Berlin tune with the seldom-played introductory verse, Charlap then crafts a contrapuntal head arrangement that recalls early McCoy Tyner. After a round of concise and inventive solos, Charlap restates the melody in the original key of F minor, but then modulates to E minor for the concluding A section. (The pop cliché is to modulate up a half-step, not down.) The trio then vamps on a bluesy G7 tonality before wrapping up with a decorative coda. Analogous surprises also crop up during "Slow Boat to China." Charlap takes the melody at a medium tempo and then moves through a series of shifting chords before launching into a faster tempo for the solos. He plays the tune in B flat, but takes the second half of his final chorus in D -- a seemingly random event. Then he returns to B flat for the first half of the out melody, halves the tempo, and modulates to A major (again, down a half-step) to finish the song. All this is to say that Charlap is an uncommonly imaginative arranger, not to mention a great player. He's also unusually resourceful in terms of repertoire. Arlen, Porter, Gershwin, Mercer, Rodgers and Hart: These are all big-name songwriters, but Charlap astutely picks some of their lesser-known songs. And speaking of lesser-known songs, Charlap also offers a moving tribute to his late father, Broadway composer Moose Charlap, with a solo piano rendition of "I'll Never Go There Anymore." This is perhaps the clearest example of how Charlap invests his material with a genuinely personal touch.

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