92nd Street Y: Jazz in July

July 6, 2023

“Jazz in July” at the 92nd Street Y concluded its 38th season with a series of five concerts.  It was memorable for some terrific music, but even more so because it concluded Bill Charlap’s tenure as the Artistic Director after 18 seasons.  He will be succeeded next year by pianist Aaron Diehl. (Charlap, left, and Diehl, right, in photo above).

This year the series kicked off with a concert featuring vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and trumpeter Nicholas Payton accompanied by the Bill Charlap Trio — Charlap on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Kenny Washington on drums, a working group since 1997.

Unquestionably a jazz singer, Bridgewater consistently takes songs to special and often unexpected places.  Her program was well-paced and bookended by songs from the land of Ellingtonia, opening with “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Caravan” and “Mood Indigo,” while taking “Cottontail “on a joyful scat journey to conclude the concert.  Her other selections included “Sometimes I’m Happy,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Man I Love” and “Fine and Mellow.”

The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master also has a wonderfully expressive voice, an ability to shine at any tempo, a level of musicality that enables her to make surprising choices sound natural, especially when she indulges in scat interludes. She also has an engaging personality that adds a special level of intimacy to her performance.

Payton played his part perfectly, offering support where appropriate and displaying imaginative solo chops when given the opportunity.  Charlap is a particularly sensitive accompanist with an equally impressive talent for improvisation when taking solo interludes.  The long association among Charlap and the Washingtons enabled them to display a cohesiveness that is unerring.

A multi-pianist concert has been a steady part of this series for most of its years.  This year, the participants were Charlap, Diehl, Isaiah J. Thompson and Caelan Cardello.  Offering rhythm support were bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Carl Allen.  Charlap mixed and matched the performers at the pair of Steinway concert grand pianos on stage, offering each player a solo, putting them into various duo combinations, and putting all eight hands in motion together for two selections. (Both Thompson and Cardello have been featured as Jersey Jazz Magazine Rising Stars, Thompson in November/December 2020 and Cardello in January 2022).

Charlap opted to pair himself with Diehl for “What Is This Thing Called Love,” fittingly combining the current and future series Artistic Directors to get things on the road.   Other pairings included Charlap and Cardello for “All Through the Night,” and Diehl and Thompson for “Stardust.”  

On the solo numbers, Diehl addressed “Tiger Rag” in an arrangement based on one of Art Tatum’s recordings of the song, as well as Monk’s “Ruby My Dear”; Cardello played “All of You,” Thompson assayed Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly”, and Charlap combined with Ueda for a stunning take on “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon).”

About three quarters of the way into the set, Charlap seated himself with Cardello at one piano while Diehl and Thompson manned the other for an exciting jam on an untitled blues.  The four gathered again for the closer, “Woody ‘N You,” with Charlap and Thompson facing Cardello and Diehl.

The four players are all masterful improvisors, with each having his own approach.  Charlap has been front and center at these concerts for decades, but always brings a freshness to his playing that continues to amaze.  Diehl has been a major voice on jazz piano for over a decade, extending his basically mainstream approach in many directions.  Thompson has become  widely known through his ascension to the piano chair on the John Pizzarelli Trio.  Cardello has been a presence on the New Jersey scene since his days as a member of the Montclair-based Jazz House Kids and his studies at William Paterson University; he is already becoming a steady presence in New York City as well. Thompson (left photo at bottom) grew up in West Orange, NJ, and Cardello (right photo) is from Teaneck.

Charlap’s incredible versatility, imagination and depth of knowledge about the Great American Songbook were on display at his “Jazz in July” solo piano performance. He began the concert with an unexpectedly slow take on “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and followed it with a sprightly “How About You.” He then launched into a medley of “My Ideal,” “I Was Born in Love with You,” “My Funny Valentine” and “All the Things You Are” that he dedicated to his wife, pianist Renee Rosnes.  To add an exclamation point to these sentiments, he played “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

As the concert progressed, Charlap included songs by most of the major Songbook composers such as Harold Arlen (“Blues in the Night” and “I’ve Got the World on a String”), George Gershwin (“My One and Only”), Arthur Schwartz (“New Sun in the Sky,” “By Myself” and “You and the Night and the Music”), Stephen Sondheim (“You Must Meet My Wife”), Jerome Kern (“Remind Me”), Cole Porter (“You’d Be So Easy to Love”), and Richard Rodgers (“You Took Advantage of Me,” “If I Loved You”, and “It Never Entered My Mind”).

At one point, he asked the audience for requests.  The first proved to be a song he claimed never to have played before, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” but you could not imagine that from the manner in which he executed it. Charlap closed the concert appropriately with an early 20th Century pop classic, “After You’ve Gone.”  An extended standing ovation led to an encore which was a nod in the direction of the recently departed mainstay of classic pop, Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

A master of virtually all approaches to playing jazz on the piano from stride to more modern approaches, Charlap sounds most influenced by the harmonic imagination brought to the table by Bill Evans.  Technically, he seems capable of playing anything that comes to his mind.  The sensitivity that he shows at slower tempi touches the listener, while his nimble-fingered, two-handed artistry when he picks up the pace is impressive and frequently leaves you with your mouth hanging open with awe.  Add to this his impeccable taste in song selection, and you get what was on display on this occasion — a jazz artist who is truly one of the elite players on the current scene.

“Jazz in July” was brought to a conclusion for this season with the aptly named “All-Star Jazz Party.”  For this concert, Charlap enlisted an outstanding cast that included Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Steve Wilson on alto sax, Nicole Glover on tenor sax, Ken Peplowski on clarinet, John Pizzarelli on guitar and vocals, David Wong on bass, and Dennis Mackrel on drums, with Renee Rosnes splitting piano chores with Charlap. Charlap, Wong, and Mackrel got things started with a gentle intro to “’S Wonderful” before the full complement of musicians arrived on stage to offer a full-out swing version of the song, with each participant given solo space.  

Things then changed direction when Charlap and Rosnes each took a seat at one of the pianos for their take on “Chorinho” by Lyle Mays, a selection that appeared on their duo album, Double Portrait (Blue Note: 2020)..

Next up, John Pizzarelli added his guitar and vocal prowess for two numbers, “It Had to Be You” and “Three Little Words,” with both pianists, Pelt, Wong, and Mackrel in support on the former, and Rosnes and Pelt giving way to Peplowski on the latter.

Steve Wilson gave a lovely reading to “A Time for Love,” backed by Rosnes, Wong, and Mackrel.  The front line was next occupied by Glover and Pelt as they turned their attention to a Kenny Dorham composition, “Windmill,” a hard bop anthem on which Charlap, Wong, and Mackrel provided support.

Rosnes is a fine composer in addition to her pianistic prowess.  She demonstrated this on her own “Life Does Not Wait,” joined by Peplowski, who played with superb sensitivity. They were joined by Wong and Mackrel.

As could be expected, there was a blues number that started with a generic blues evolving into Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”  Featured were Pizzarelli, Wilson, Pelt, Charlap, each of whom took sparkling solo turns as did Wong who took full advantage of his solo space by showing why he is among the select bassists on the scene.  

In a heartfelt spoken interlude, Charlap expressed his pleasure at having been engaged as Artistic Director for all these years and offered his thanks to the audiences, musicians, sponsors and strongly supportive staff of the 92nd Street Y who made his job the special position that it was.  He then played a beautiful version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time,” with support from Wong and Mackrel. It was then all hands on deck for a rousing closer, another Ellington classic, “Love You Madly.”

Charlap chose a stellar lineup for this concert that closed not only this year’s series, but marked his final turn as Artistic Director.  It was a fitting conclusion to his impressive tenure.  He carried on the high standards set by the original Artistic Director, Dick Hyman, and left things in fine shape for Diehl to successfully extend the series into the future.-JOE LANG





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