LJF 2017: Bill Charlap

If you weren't there you may well live to regret it, says Leon Nock of the Bill Charlap Trio's Pizza Express gig on the London Jazz Festival's opening night

It’s that time again, 10 days at the tail end of autumn in which jazz buffs of every stripe and persuasion can converge on London secure in the knowledge that they can pig out on one of the most eclectic musical buffets available over the counter sans prescription. Truly something for everyone.

My own taste in the field can best be described as conventional or boring depending on your point of view, which means that around my house the "jazz" I admire, respect, and to which I genuflect peaked in the late 50s and then went downhill faster than Eddie The Eagle on the Cresta Run. This is not to say I shy away from the odd touch of fusion, provided it is manufactured by King Gillette.

So no real surprises when Friday evening on the opening day of the festival found me ensconced at Pizza Express, standing up to be counted, when pianist Bill Charlap (pictured) brought his trio to town along with special guest Colin Oxley, on guitar. It’s said that we can’t choose our parents but if we could then young William was one shrewd cookie selecting as his sire fine Broadway composer Moose Charlap and as his dam Sandy Stewart, one of the finest vocalists to hold a cabaret card and active for several years on the supper-club, cabaret and jazz circuit.

If you wanted to be cute you could say Bill Charlap plays a lot of piano – it’s got 89 keys – but Charlap is better than that, much better. Maestro hits the spot. Exquisite takes it to the next level. Precision personified he takes great care to place each note exactly where it will best complement both the note that’s just gone and the one on its way; he doesn’t so much create music as fashion a mosaic, a tapestry, call it what you will or Twelfth Night.

There was some confusion about the venue; to all intents and purposes I walked into Pizza Express on Dean Street and made my way to the basement but somewhere between floors I entered the Tardis and exited in 1956 at The Blue Note. Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Rodgers and that was just for openers, I don’t know about the audience but I was in Hawg Heaven. The group were tighter than Scrooge on Christmas Eve and their timing had a Rolex Oyster beat seven ways from the middle; even Colin Oxley who was a guest for the evening slotted in seamlessly.

Charlap has a penchant for the slow ballad – Polka Dots And Moonbeams, My Funny Valentine - and when I say slow I kid you not: he’ll sidle up to a note and pause as if waiting for an invitation and then he strikes it right on the money. Time and time again he’ll start a ballad exquisitely slowly and within seconds, almost imperceptibly, the whole group are swinging like the clapometer at a Tory landslide. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the other sidemen, Mark Hodgson, bass and Stephen Keogh, drums, who were note perfect and knew just where to enhance the others. The evening was dedicated to the late (2016) great Irish guitarist Louis Stewart and Charlap made frequent nods to his memory.

Favourite number? It would be churlish to single out just one pearl from such an exquisite necklace – All The Things You Are, It Never Entered My Mind, Darn That Dream, Blues In The Night, Body And Soul – The Great American Songbook in Soho. In short it was one hell of an evening. If you were lucky enough to be there you’ll remember it for a long, long time and bask in the afterglow. If you weren’t there you may well live to regret it. Trust me.

Photo courtesy of Ted Kurland Associates

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