The Bill Charlap Trio's concert at Atlanta's McElreath Hall Thursday night displayed some of the classical music gravity that critics see as deadening to jazz.
The audience at the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival's event showed the respectful deference of symphony goers. Charlap, bass player Sean Smith and drummer Kenny Washington performed selections from the trio's album of Leonard Bernstein songs. While edging toward jazz, Bernstein remained rooted in classical traditions and musical theater.
The acoustically true concert hall next to the Atlanta History Center has a symphonic ambience that contrasts with the dark intimacy of a club like New York City's Village Vanguard, a musical home for Charlap.
Charlap and his mates found the swinging heart of upbeat Bernstein numbers like "America" from "West Side Story" and the blues core of "Big Stuff" from "Fancy Free," recorded by Billie Holiday, as Charlap noted in one of his gregarious monologues. Wistful ballads like "Somewhere" and "Some Other Time," an encore, raised the emotional level beyond exploiting the easy nostalgia of those who were young when "Westside Story" and "On the Town" arrived.
The trio's interpretations took the familiar songs down new paths, making them fresh and vital creations, not museum pieces. A few of the swinging numbers moved members of the audience to spontaneous clapping.
Displaying his virtuoso power and melodic precision, Charlap dazzled the audience. Washington excelled with a number of pulsing drum solos, and an unerring rhythm. Smith also performed several solos, showing the versatility of the bass. My only regret was that they didn't do "New York, New York," my favorite Comden-Green toe-tapper.
The appreciative audience included the 92-year-old saxophone legend Jimmy Heath, introduced by Charlap to strong applause, and H. Johnson, WABE's jazz DJ.
In the Charlap Trio's expressive take on Bernstein, classical mastery and jazz's primal force struck fire.