It’s been a while since Blue Note Records has hyped a new signing as heavily as Bill Charlap–a consummately tasteful pianist who’s worked in Phil Woods’s quintet since 1995, where his colorful chords mediate between the horns and the rhythm section and his solos display a fine mixture of fire and control. As part of its promo campaign in advance of Charlap’s 2000 release Written in the Stars–his debut for Blue Note and fifth disc as a leader–the label distributed a big press kit anchored by a glowing profile from Whitney Balliett, which had originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1999. Balliett rarely bestows his approval on a musician so young (Charlap’s now 34), but in that piece he lauded the interpretative maturity that allows the pianist to plumb the clockwork inside the oft played standards that make up the bulk of his repertoire, then use that knowledge to craft carefully considered, meticulously accented improvisations. Maybe Charlap knew this disc could be his big break, and felt the pressure while recording it; maybe the hype simply overstimulated my expectations. Whatever the reason, Written in the Stars is disappointing. With its polite perfectionism and smart, lovely arrangements, the album presents an overly demure version of the pianist, lacking adventurousness and passion–both qualities that have informed Charlap’s recorded work with Woods, which is why I expect to hear them in his club sets this weekend. Because of his tightly wrapped respect for his material, he never plays with anything like wild abandon, but his sly, quick sense of humor often comes to the fore, giving his lines a mercurial boost. He’ll perform with as good a straight-ahead rhythm section as New York has to offer these days, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington–not related, though with their interlocking rhythms and complementary shadings they might as well be. Friday and Saturday, July 13 and 14, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, July 15, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jimmy Katz.