- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

Listening to Bill Charlap, you might think the jazz pianist exhibits remarkable restraint. He has wonderful dexterity and a touch of crystalline clarity. Yet he never lets his technique distract from, or overwhelm, the musical statement he’s making.

Still, Mr. Charlap doesn’t like to think of it as restraint; the word connotes a certain holding back. The word the pianist prefers is discipline, as in a focus on what’s important in the music at hand.

Mr. Charlap’s discipline is a positive one, a searching for the uncluttered emotional core of the music he is performing, whether the songs have their origin in the theater or the jazz club. The result is music that is, on its surface, pretty and appealing. Underneath, though, Mr. Charlap’s treatments are layered and complex, well-organized and structurally sound. His playing is like a terrific wine: pleasing to the casual consumer while rewarding the connoisseur who dives more deeply.

Tonight, Mr. Charlap performs at the Kennedy Center with his excellent band mates, bassist Peter Washington and (unrelated) drummer Kenny Washington. He will be playing selections from his recordings on the Blue Note label, such as his recent treatment of the Gershwin canon and his much-acclaimed 2004 release “Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein.”

You also can expect to hear plenty of jazz standards from iconic jazz composers such as Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Also, with any luck, Mr. Charlap will include a song or two from his father, Morris “Moose” Charlap, a Broadway composer best known for several contributions to the hit musical “Peter Pan” — including such memorable numbers as “I Gotta Crow,” “I’m Flying,” and “I Won’t Grow Up.” Recently, Bill Charlap recorded two of his father’s songs on “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” a beautiful, cabaret-flavored record with his mother, singer Sandy Stewart.

There has been a move among jazz musicians of late to venture into the pop/rock songs of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s in search of new material. This trend stems partly from a desire to be more up to date (though it isn’t clear how playing a 40-year-old Beatles tune makes one less retro than playing a 45-year-old standard associated with Frank Sinatra). This dabbling in modern pop also may come from a sense that the songbook standards are getting to be war horses ridden too hard and too often.

That’s the beauty of those two Moose Charlap tunes: They challenge the notion that the Great American Songbook is somehow threadbare from overuse. There are hundreds of obscure songs by even the most famous songwriters, just waiting to be rediscovered — and then there are composers such as Moose Charlap, most of whose songs have been forgotten.

What a waste of great material. “I’ll Never Go There Anymore,” the closing tune on Mr. Charlap’s album with his mother, was written by the elder Mr. Charlap and lyricist Eddie Lawrence for “Kelly,” a 1965 Broadway musical that opened and closed on the same night.

The song has something of the emotional tone of the wistful World War II tune “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Both are rooted in imagery of empty playgrounds amid the backdrop of war. Yet while “I’ll Be Seeing You” is a hopeful ode to life postponed, “I’ll Never Go There Anymore” is a devastating cry of lost love never to be regained.

It makes you wonder how many more achingly beautiful songs like that are buried in the wreckage of shows that have flopped. Bill Charlap performs songs that are familiar along with those that aren’t but should be. His playing is intelligent without being off-putting.

As Mr. Charlap says, “I’m not interested in turning my back on the audience.” That’s just what’s needed to keep the “popular” in the American popular song tradition.

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