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Timeless elegance

Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein
Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein
By the Bill Charlap Trio

Blue Note Records: 2004

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This review first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Turbula.

Leonard Bernstein was one of the giant figures in American arts. During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, he was the nation's de facto if unofficial music laureate, bringing his immense charisma and celebrity to bear in shaping and refining our musical tastes.

Beyond that, Bernstein was, by all accounts, a great conductor. And as a marketer of the arts, he had no peer – what P.T. Barnum did for the circus, Bernstein did for serious music.

But for all his gifts, what Leonard Bernstein was not was a great composer.

Despite efforts by his supporters to portray him as an equal of Copeland, Stravinsky or other 20th Century composers, Bernstein's music simply isn't of that caliber. It is hard, in fact, to even place him within the great popular songwriters – Porter, Carmichael, Gershwin, Ellington or Berlin, say, all of whom contributed to the canon of the great American songbook.

The plain fact is that Bernstein was a good composer at best, and so pianist Bill Charlap's new disc of Bernstein's songs is limited right from the get-go by the material.

And yet, Charlap and his trio (Peter Washington on bass; Kenny Washington, no relation, drums) have created a musical tapestry with this album that in many ways elevates the music it is built on.

Much of the strength of this album comes from the empathy of this trio, which has been together seven years now. It is, in fact, almost an instrument of its own, with the interplay between the three men so intrinsic, so utterly seamless that in many ways it reminds of the way Duke Ellington used his orchestra as his singular instrument.

Charlap's piano playing is possessed of a timeless elegance; it recalls Hoagy Carmichael and Erroll Garner, black-and-white movies and cocktail parties. Were Sam sick one night, Charlap could easily sit in on piano at Rick's Place and no one would be startled.

And yet, Charlap – a child of the '60s – is also a fully modern player, holding down the piano seat in Phil Woods' combo, with hues and hints of bop and free jazz, fusion and rock coloring his playing.

The Washingtons' rhythm possesses that same sense of eternal elegance as Charlap's piano; there is just this wonderful suspension beneath his melodic leads that is so good you don't notice how much they contribute to the sound unless you stop and pay attention to what they're doing.

The songs are drawn from Bernstein's best-known works, "West Side Story" and "On the Town," "Wonderful town" and "Candide." They are given a supper-club arrangement by the trio – a relaxed, loosely swinging approach that is lush, romantic and sophisticated. It's the sort of music that would sound perfectly at home piping out of a hi-fi console or reel-to-reel tape deck.

"Somewhere" is, in the end, a wonderful album not so much because of its thematic construction, but simply because of how very good the three men who created it are at playing together.