We’re fairly sure that the average Manhattanite doesn’t know the difference between an edible conch and a deadly cone shell, and knowing how to forage for seaweed is rarely useful while strolling through Central Park. Yet lifelong New Yorker Bill Charlap would be ideal company on any desert island—as long as he had a decent piano and a Spotify link.
The veteran jazz pianist was recently asked to enumerate his desert-island discs for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and when he revisited that undertaking for the Georgia Straight, the results were revealing.
One thing we learned was that Charlap has extraordinary recall, which is not necessarily surprising in someone who has memorized the Great American Songbook in its entirety, along with most of its lesser tributaries. We now know, too, that he’s a man who likes a list. And, surprisingly, he hasn’t entirely lost his teenage love of the band Yes, whose 1971 masterpiece “Roundabout” still features on his 2017 soundtrack.
Some of the other choices make just a little more sense. Vladimir Horowitz’s 1953 recording of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Charlap reports from Napa, California, was the first album he ever bought. The Bill Evans Trio’s take on “Come Rain or Come Shine”, the lead track from 1960’s Portrait in Jazz, gave him a template for his own immaculate trio with Kenny Washington on drums and Peter Washington on the upright bass.
Charlap also cites some formative moments from closer to home: “My father, at the piano, singing a song that he wrote with Norman Gimbel, called ‘Awfully Glad You Came’. And my mother singing ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’ with Dick Hyman at the piano.”
And then there’s former Vancouverite Renee Rosnes, whose “Empress Afternoon” strikes Charlap as “a remarkable piece of work”. Charlap’s parents, by the way, were Broadway composer Mark “Moose” Charlap and singer Sandy Stewart; Rosnes is his wife. Music has surrounded the pianist since birth, and although Charlap says that he chooses his repertoire “because I like it”, he tends to work with material that has some kind of connection to his family, friends, or mentors.
His new record, Notes From New York, is a case in point. Although, stylistically, the disc runs from the proto-bop of guitarist Tiny Grimes’s and Charlie Parker’s “Tiny’s Tempo” to an extraordinarily subtle interpretation of the jazz standard “I’ll Remember April”, every tune is attached to a memory. Which is not to say that Charlap’s art is nostalgic or backward-looking. He jokingly describes his music as “avant-garde and noisy lyrical ballads”; remove “and noisy”, and that would be a fair assessment.
“Actually, an avant-garde spirit should be part of everything that you do, all the time—whether it’s a Mozart sonata or a free improvisation,” says the pianist, whose reputation as a mainstream jazz artist belies his ever-inventive ear. “I think that’s important. Music and art should be experienced brand-new every time—and you can experience it that way; it’s just part of learning to listen.”
The Bill Charlap Trio plays West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Centre for the Performing Arts on Thursday (May 4).