Published: August, 2005, Rasputin Manifesto
Jazz CD reviews

By Michael Fortes

Bill Charlap
Bill Charlap Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul

(Blue Note)

In the fantasy life of a would-be millionaire socialite, the centerpiece of this imaginary person's life is the regular occurrence of a dinner party. A table full of hors d'ouevres… a little pate here, a little caviar there, maybe some of those food-as-art flower arrangements made entirely of fruit that look so amazing that nobody dares eat them… everyone's dressed like they have their own personal tailor… The soundtrack? Why jazz, naturally. Bill Charlap Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul just might be one of the discs selected for the evening.

This, of course, would be the disc saved for later in the evening, when the 50-year-old bottle of scotch comes out of the liquor cabinet.

Like the imaginary socialite's dinner party, Charlap's takes on Gershwin are well executed, meticulous, slow moving, new and interesting yet proper, and in some ways, rich. The richness is most often in the form of the horns that embellish some of the tracks, especially on "A Foggy Day," where the chord voicings are reminiscent of the way Gil Evans arranged for Miles Davis.

With Phil Woods on alto, Frank Wess on tenor, Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Slide Hampton on trombone, the core trio of pianist Charlap, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington is ornamented in a way that creates the illusion of a fuller ensemble on the aforementioned "A Foggy Day" and the last 30 seconds or so of "'S Wonderful." Elsewhere, the trio is left to its own devices, sleepwalking through "Who Cares?" and galloping through a quietly feisty "Liza." Wess steps out for a sexy solo on "How Long Has This Been Going On?" which is sure to inspire some romantic slow dancing after a nightcap or two.

Mostly though, the music is wallpaper. Mind you, this is very expensive wallpaper we're talking about here, or maybe even a special mural painted by a respected artist at the request of the homeowner, something very chic yet unobtrusive. Gershwin, chic? Of course! He's always been, and always will be. Everybody knows it. And nobody knows it more than our imaginary millionaire socialite. He knows there are many others like him decorating their walls with the same basic materials, and, had he chosen a more lively design, perhaps he'd be entertaining twice as many guests. Pity.

Wynton Marsalis
Amongst The People: Live At The House Of Tribes
(Blue Note)

Wynton Marsalis may not be the hippest jazz cat alive, but he does deserve some credit. He's one hell of a trumpet player, he's wildly prolific, he's a knowledgeable jazz historian, and he's one of the few of his generation who is not only a household name, but is also easily recognized by mentioning simply his first name. Wynton. That's all you need to say, and there's probably nary a soul out there who will think you're talking about the great pianist Wynton Kelly, after whom Marsalis was named.

And yet, for all this credit he so richly deserves - and I mean that with utmost sincerity - I often find myself wondering, who buys his records? I can count on one hand the number of people I have met over the years who have admitted to buying a disc or two by Wynton, and I'd only have to use one finger.

After giving a few listens to Wynton's latest, Amongst The People: Live At The House Of Tribes, I am reminded why I've never bought any of the man's albums, and why I've yet to meet anyone who is as nuts about Wynton as I am about Miles or Ornette. I think back to the time I attended the CMJ convention in New York City back in 1997, and decided to check out a set by Wynton at some hole in the wall club decked out with living room furniture whose name I forget. My memory of that concert bears a strikingly close resemblance to the music on Amongst The People, which was recorded five years after the show I attended. It's as if the moment never ended, the element of surprise taking an extended nap on the job while the best bits kept replaying in subtle variations.

Of course, we all know that Wynton prefers to keep his jazz in a time warp, and for a living snapshot of what it must have been like for a real working jazz band in the early to mid 1960s (or earlier), it doesn't get much better than Wynton. Amongst The People, at least, does a fine job of reminding us of this fact. At most, we get to hear Wynton playing some damn fine old school New Orleans jazz on Paul Barbarin's "2nd Line." Though it's the shortest ditty on the disc, serving as an 'outro' to the lively recording (with a lively audience frequently heard throughout the program), it's the most soulful performance on the disc. It's the one you'll remember the best, moreso than the show-off blowing session on Thelonious Monk's "Green Chimneys" or the super-precise, non-chaotic bebop of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee."