Bill Charlap is the best pianist to emerge in jazz since the mid-1990s. He is an astonishing player who has taken the best of what all the great jazz pianists have had to say and incorporated it into his own playing. This has made him a pianist with the chops to move the music any way he wants.
Charlap’s roots lie in a boyhood home filled with song. Songwriters Charles Strouse, Yip Harburg, and Marilyn and Alan Bergman were frequent guests at the Charlap house. His father, Mark “Moose” Charlap, was a Broadway composer who contributed music to Peter Pan, The Conquering Hero, and Whoop-Up. His mother, Sandy Stewart, co-starred on the Perry Como Show on television, sang with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and was nominated for a Grammy with her 1962 hit, “My Coloring Book.” Not surprisingly, Charlap took to the piano and attended the High School of Performing Arts (of Fame fame) in New York City.
Charlap has played with many of the powerhouse innovators in jazz, among them Phil Woods, Benny Carter, Clark Terry, Jim Hall, and Gerry Mulligan. He has also had the challenging task of accompanying singers Tony Bennett, Carol Sloane, Helen Merrill, and Sheila Jordan. Charlap’s first album as a leader was released in 1994, and since then he has matured nicely into a pianist of exceptional grace and style.
Stardust [Blue Note #35985] is Charlap’s tribute to the prodigious talents of composer Hoagy Carmichael. Carmichael is a wise choice because he was not a composer of songs for the theatre, as were many of his songwriting contemporaries; instead, he composed for the jazz world.
There are eleven songs on Stardust, including “Georgia on My Mind,” “Skylark,” and “Two Sleepy People.” Charlap turns in one memorable solo after another. Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington (not related) on drums provide the perfect support team, playing deliberate solos that feel comfortable and inventive.
Charlap has selected as guest singers Tony Bennett and Shirley Horn, sax and flute player Frank Wess, and guitarist Jim Hall to perform on Stardust; exceptional choices, all. Tony Bennett’s languid delivery of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” has a perfect unhurried accompaniment by Charlap. Shirley Horn’s wispy, bittersweet “Stardust” exudes sophistication, and Charlap’s playing on this track is a model of melodic consistency.
But the runaway guest star of the recording is tenor saxophonist Frank Wess. His sound is world-weary, and his musical ideas are exquisitely unobtrusive. His duo with Charlap on “Blue Orchids” is leisurely and inspiring.