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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sloane On Charlap

***** A vision of a man or woman bending over a miniature platform on which sits a tiny vice firmly grasping the back of watch. He or she will painstakingly assemble and synchronize integral parts, to be assembled with infinite patience and enviable dexterity to create a beautiful and valuable time-piece. The work room is softly-lit and very quiet; there is little verbal communication or light-hearted banter among these artisans as they concentrate on the formidable task at hand.

***** A loupe is firmly embedded in one eye; dainty, miniaturized tweezers, grippers, hammers and tiny rotation devices are arrayed before the technician, these to be added one by one and in proper order to the back of the watch. The finished product will contain up to fifty or more quite different but absolutely essential items including: a click, a click spring, a yoke spring, a train bridge, a clutch bridge, a barrel bridge, a third wheel, an upper third wheel, a transmission wheel (which is the crown wheel), a ratchet wheel, a set wheel, a minute wheel, a center wheel, a balance wheel, an escape wheel, an upper escape wheel, a forth wheel, the center shaft and cannon pinion, a lower forth wheel pivot/hole jewel, the all-important hour wheel, and many other parts including the vital hair-spring stud and balance cock. These combined components constitute the heart-beat of any of the world's most famous and valuable watches such as a Breitling or a Patek Philippe rather than a Mickey Mouse, although I'm sure these days Mickey's famous image adorns a watch much more sophisticated and costly than the throw-away version I proudly wore on my childish wrist.

***** I was thinking of the inner-workings of a fine watch and its intricate, arcane calibrations as I listened to the Bill Charlap Trio a few weeks ago during a performance at the comfortable Cambridge/Boston jazz club called The Regatta Bar. Like a mechanism containing the most exquisite elements, all synchronized, polished and dependent each upon the other to insure utmost, pin-point accuracy, Bill, his bass player Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, are the apotheosis of the craftsmanship required to produce a truly superb, flawless piece of living art: jazz improvisation at its ultimate best.

***** Bill's repertoire is vast and varied so that at any given performance, one might hear the trio play compositions by George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, Benny Carter, Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill, Richard Rodney Bennett, Chick Corea, Duke Ellington, Vernon Duke or Leonard Bernstein. Bill plays with prodigious technique and astonishing improvisational skills. The audience at the club the night I heard him gave the impression they are his most loyal fans: those who collect his recorded works, music scholars, music students, colleagues, and passionate jazz lovers like myself who make it a point to attend any performance he gives when he visits the Boston area.

***** I cannot tell you if Bill played a flatted fifth augmented by a dominant seventh over a diminished ninth (I just made those up) because my knowledge of music is not merely limited: it is non-existent. Oh yes: I can hear perfectly well, and as a singer, I can reproduce a melody, but I cannot read music. I merely intercept, absorb and react. However, over the past seventy-five years, I believe my auditory nerves have remained highly sensitive. Of course, I have diligently protected my adorable little cochlea from harmful assault ever since I found myself in the front-row seat at a rock concert many years ago. After innocently inquiring of my date "Which one is Jethro Tull?", he smiled sweetly and handed me enough cotton batting to stuff a dead rhinoceros. It worked, more or less. But, I digress.

***** The Bill Charlap Trio works as much like a fine Swiss watch as one can imagine. The responsibilities for time keeping belong to Peter W and Kenny W. Peter's exceptional skills are evident from the first downbeat Bill gives. Peter seems to be lightly touching the strings of his bass and yet a powerful, full, rich sound emanates from his instrument, seemingly with minimal effort. Kenny is a wonder to behold. His brush work is sensitive, inventive, smooth and never over-bearing and yet his sound also generates dynamism and perfect propulsive thrust. And the tempo Bill sets never changes. Kenny Washington's time is unwavering. I call him Chronos.

***** When I asked Bill to authenticate the initial date of the trio's origin, he replied:

***** "Kenny, Peter & I started playing together as a trio in December of 1998 ... so, a little under 14 years. The first time we played together is the album "All through The Night"* (save for one short rehearsal before the date). The chemistry was there right from the start."

***** Another important element of the Bill Charlap style is his prodigious knowledge of the history of jazz piano. This applies not only to legendary soloists, but to singer/pianists as well, and therefore I've always sensed he knows the lyrics of the songs he plays. When I asked if he would confirm my assumption, he replied:

***** "Yes, I always know the lyrics. To me, the music and lyrics are a 50/50 partnership, and even though I don't sing, I'm always "singing" in my head when I play. The lyrics certainly inform the way I approach the melody and the treatment of the song."

***** And it's this Charlap approach which reminds me how to sing a ballad. Listen to him play a beautiful, romantic, dreamy song. His intelligent and utterly heartfelt interpretations always have a profound effect on me to the point where I often become tearful. To hear him play is to hear him sing. How sweet and timely it is.


***** P.S. Speaking of fine watches, I recently saw a Patek Philippe Tourbillion 5101R going for a cool $395,000. But, as with many of the world's most valued watches, this prices out in the moderate range. Others I've seen are affordable only to the Sultan of Brunei or one of his relatives.


* "All Through The Night", The Bill Charlap Trio, Criss Cross Jazz 1153, Recorded December 22, 1997. Definitive jazz from start to finish and for a very long time, my personal favorite.

***** SloaneView wants you to be kept informed of future appearances by Bill Charlap which may occur in your area. Here is the site which lists his itinerary:

Bill Charlap Tour Dates

***** To watch a fine time instrument being made, take a look at this YouTube video which demonstrates what it takes to make a Rolex. I think you will find it fascinating.

The Art of Watchmaking


Bob McKee said...

Modesty prevented you from mentioning that Bill Charlap supported you and Clark Terry on your wonderful recording Songs That Ella And Louis Sang.

Charlton Price said...

Reading again your elegant, generous tribute to Bill Charlap, I'm listening to his work on one of Ruby Braff's last sessions, which includes tasty brush work by another of our favorites, Jake Hanna. My preference, at least this morning, is for Bill's comping -- sprightly ingenious dialog with Ruby, huge variety yet appropriate to every song's musical line and lyric, and impeccable time, as you mention (how could he miss on that, anyway, with Jake there?)
You rightly emphasize Bill's deep empathy with singer + piano history. That comes through in his fine backing for you and Clark Terry in "The Songs Ella and Louis Sang."

Sloane said...

Thanks Bob for mentioning "The Songs Ella And Louis Sang", but Bill and I have recorded several cds together, including three others on the Concord label: "The Songs Carmen Sang", "The Songs Sinatra Sang" and "When I Look In Your Eyes". It's heaven to sing with him, and I always knew he was singing with me.