The Long-Standing Bill Charlap Trio Returns to Blue Note with ‘Street of Dreams’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Jazz boasts an iconic history of piano trios but clearly the nearly 25-year run of pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington ranks them as one the premiere units heard over the past two decades. It’s practically gotten to the point where the mere mention of any one of their names, invariably calls to mind the other two. Recently Charlap finished a brief duet tour with Dee Dee Bridgewater, and honestly, it seemed a bit odd to not have the esteemed Washington (no relation) rhythm tandem along. Of the more than almost thirty albums under Charlap’s name, five appeared on Blue Note beginning with Written in the Stars (2000), with the most recent, until now, Double Portrait (2010), which was with his acclaimed pianist wife, Renee Rosnes. So, Street of Dreams marks a triumphant return, almost like a fine wine that just improves with age as it would be difficult to find anywhere three eloquent voices so finely tuned and in synch with one another. 

Like Chick Corea’s famous trios with John Patitucci and Dave Weckl; and Christian McBride and Brian Blade, the concept is a collective with all three members playing an equal role is at the heart of Charlap’s approach.  Theirs, of course, is a more refined sound, centered mostly on jazz standards and Songbook favorites. The title is named for the 1930s standard penned by Victor Young and Samuel M. Lewis but is symbolically a celebration of the return of live music to New York City after the pandemic shutdown.  One has the sense, not only here, but through volumes of previous work, that these three could play just about any jazz standard by rote. Yet, the beauty of their sound lies in the most minute details – the way Charlap sustains certain notes, the elements of blues in the pianist’s approach, the crafty brush work of Kenny, the unison and counterpoint strokes of Peter’s bass, the collective telepathic way they can improvise lines, harmonies, and navigate changes.  While all the music is easy on the ears, and it could be tempting to let it run in the background, true appreciation for their finessed sound involves focused listening.

The album begins with a playful take on Dave Brubeck’s tribute to Duke Ellington, “The Duke” as Charlap begins almost minimally with an astute choice of notes as Kenny slithers across his cymbals, later switching to sticks to ignite the swing portion, characteristic of how this trio quickly shifts tempo while maintaining the same degree of elegance and grace.  Arguably, Charlap shines brightest on ballads, and we get one next, with Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Day Dream,” a glowing exhibit of Charlap’s delicate touch, Kenny’s painting with brushes, and balanced subtlety of Peter’s robust bass. We note that James Farber, an expert at capturing the nuances of dynamics, is the engineer behind this project.

Charlap’s skills as an arranger come into clear focus on “You’re All the World to Me,” written by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner for Fred Astaire. The agility of each trio member is such it would take a terrific dancer like Astaire to do justice to these rhythms, which become playful in the hands of the trio. They return to exquisite balladry with Frank Loesser’s “I’ll Know” from Guys and Dolls.  Loesser has special meaning to Charlap, as he was a mentor to the pianist’s Broadway songwriting father, Morris “Moose” Charlap.  In most of his albums, Charlap finds a way to honor his father as he does here.

Even when tapping into famous composers, Charlap, a musicologist at heart, has a knack for bringing out the more obscure tunes. “Your Host” hails from the bebop era, a tune composed by Kenny Burrell and originally recorded with Kenny Clarke, Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan, and Paul Chambers on Jazzmen: Detroit (1956) which he cites as one of his favorite albums. We can only imagine how many of those are in the home of Charlap and Rosnes.

“Out of Nowhere” is perhaps the most improvisational of the eight pieces with Peter displaying immense chops and Charlap hitting several unexpected notes and chords in a more percussive style of playing than revealed previously., leading to vigorous interplay among all three members with Kenny’s presence as equally as vivid as the other two. Yet, they go out with their forte, sensitive playing as heard in their contemplative, brooding take on Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”  It’s as if they highlight the question mark with a series of tentative and yearning phrases. 

This trio is one of, if not the most disciplined trio working the traditional jazz idiom today. Within the confines of known structure, Charlap presents inventive arrangements, and his rhythm mates are consistently in step throughout, which is not at all surprising, given their lengthy tenure together. Yet, when one compares the playing here to that of their Blue Note debut over twenty years ago, the growth is not only noticeable but a reminder that delicacy, restraint, and elegance don’t appear often enough in much of today’s music. These three masters continue to show us how beautiful music can be when applying those traits.

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