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Stardust by Bill Charlap Trio

The world saw the passing of the 100th anniversary of Hoagland Howard Carmichael, aka "Hoagy," on Nov. 11, 1899, without much hoopla. In the past few years the lawyer-turned-songwriter has been the subject of a new biography, a few radio specials and other tributes. Not as serious as Ellington, not as prolific as Rodgers, not as bright as Armstrong, and lacking the mystique of Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael seems like a normal American Joe in a pork-pie hat dabbling away at the piano in the background. But while dabbling, he wrote some indisputable masterpieces - "Georgia," "Skylark," "Stardust" - as well as scores of lesser-known hits (and misses) of their time, many waiting to be rediscovered by 21st-century ears.

Pianist Bill Charlap is way ahead of us. His 2002 release for Blue Note, Stardust, features interpretations of 11 Carmichael tunes - including the three mentioned and some more obscure numbers - that ought to please contemporary jazz audiences while underlining Carmichael’s timeless appeal.

As on his 2000 Blue Note debut, Written in the Stars, Charlap is joined by bassist Peter Washington and unrelated drummer Kenny Washington for a set that swings, sulks, meditates and moons. This time out, however, the trio is joined on five tracks by a number of guests, testing Charlap in a number of different settings. He rises to the challenge in every case.

A syncopated, stutter-stepping march introduced the first track, "Jubilee," which quickly takes off like the roaring ’20s that produced the music that captured Carmichael’s heart and wooed him away from law. It’s a great track to open the set with - bright, witty and not as well known as some Hoagy standards. And it shows Charlap and the Washingtons in an impressive light, with incredible runs on the piano, athletic bass playing and clever, inventive skin work.

"I Get Along Without You (Very Well)" is also a fine choice for track two, taking the pace down to a snail’s crawl as Charlap accompanies Tony Bennett. Bennet hits just the right tone - pitiful bordering on desperate - and the trio is responsive and sympathetic without getting too involved in the singer’s travails.

"Rockin’ Chair," one of Carmichael’s earlier pieces, doesn’t rock quiet the way a 21st-century kid raised on Zeppelin or Limp Bizkit might expect, but it is deeply and undeniably cool. Saxophonist Frank Wess - at 80 years of age, he probably knew Carmichael personally - joins the trio here, blowing breathlessly a la Lester Young, and Charlap breezes through his choruses. An important part in the history of jazz, "Rockin’ Chair" was recorded in the 1930s by Carmichael and Louis Armstrong in what was surely one of the first interracial sessions in America.

"I Walk With Music" picks the pace up again, though it’s an easy gait, effortless and mellow as the lanky Carmichael. But bassist and drummer make it clear this is modern jazz, and Charlap grooves in a Bill Evans mode, pecking at interesting voicings with his left hand while laying down sweet and wicked lines with his right.

"Two Sleepy People" was made famous by stride master Fats Waller in the ’30s, who gave it his signature treatment of good-humored bounce. Here, always-tasty guitarist Jim Hall joins the trio for a sweet and somnolent version that again features licks and duets that depart nicely from Hoagy’s melody, taking an angular route that plays modern sensibilities off the innocence Carmichael’s heyday.

"The Nearness of You" is one of those tunes that has been covered by everyone who has every played jazz, and Charlap turns it into a showpiece for his tender stylings. The track shimmers like a wet cheek in candlelight, again evoking harmonies of Evans, and it reflects Charlap’s great love of song in general and Carmichael in particular. "One Morning May" is spritely, "Blue Orchids" brings Frank Wess back for a bit of Ellington-tinged crooning, and "Georgia" - how could anyone leave "Georgia" off a Carmichael tribute? - is a careful, reverent reading of what is probably Hoagy’s most famous tune.

If it isn’t his most famous tune, then maybe "Stardust" is, a perfect song penned in 1929, with a melody like moonlight on the water or a song coming from far across an open space. The great Shirley Horn lends her vocals to this track. Charlap reminds one of the Carmichael who might be found in the background on a movie set tinkling away as Bogart and Bacall flirt and fight. You can practically hear Peter Washington choosing his notes, while Kenny Washington adds just the right amount of heat brushing his snare - pretty, potent and pure.

"Skylark" ends the disc - another perfect song in my estimation - wistfully but without regrets. Charlap somehow achieves a different tone on his piano on this track, playing with a heavier hand and sliding notes together, as if memories of Hoagy were affecting him in some profound way.

He wouldn’t be the first.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Bill Charlap Trio
  • CD Title: Stardust
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: Blue Note
  • Rating: Four Stars
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