The program said “Bill Charlap Plays Gershwin” — also the title of one of his Blue Note CDs — but the pianist told the audience at the Arsenal Center for the Arts’ Charles Mosesian Theater a week ago Saturday that he’d be playing “Harold Arlen, Noel Coward, Gerry Mulligan . . . and a lot of others. I’ll start with some blues.” So we got Arlen & Johnny Mercer’s “Blues in the Night” (a/k/a “My Mama Done Told Me”), about as basic a blues as you can get, and about as beautifully as it can be played: the subtle melodic ornaments in the right hand, the left-hand comping that extended the song’s harmony and propelled its swing (even at a slow tempo), and, above all, the legato phrasing that made the melody sound as much sung as played, as if on a breath rather than on a percussion instrument.
SONGBOOK PRIMER: Charlap’s playing sang even without the benefit of his between-song history lessons.
Charlap played solo piano unamplified in the 330-seat Mosesian, showing it to be the perfect little recital hall. And with his attention to dynamics, he’s the perfect musician to take advantage of that, especially on ballads like “Sophisticated Lady,” “April in Paris,” “The Man I Love,” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.” But he has power and velocity as well — he took Duke Ellington’s “Jubilee Stomp” at a breakneck tempo. “Rocker,” by his former employer Gerry Mulligan, was not only fleet and fast but deep, with orchestral chording that implied the Miles Davis nonet version from Birth of the Cool and brought the song’s harmonic skeleton to the surface.
Charlap made the evening a primer on the American Songbook. Between numbers, he offered short, often funny, anecdotes about composers like Arlen, Ellington, Jerome Kern, Vernon Duke (born Vladimir Dukelsky) and argued that these songwriters — many of them European immigrants or the children of immigrants — had created a new and distinctly American music. But history and biography weren’t necessarily what you thought about when he played Kern’s “Remind Me” — a phrase, a rest, another phrase, leaving you hanging on every note as if it were a word.
Earlier in the week, on Thursday, the Mosesian handled more musicians, with amplification: the venerable (21 years old this coming December) Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra. The JCA was founded as a way for orchestral jazz composers to hear their work without the benefit of a working band or commissions. It also gave Boston audiences a chance to hear all-new work by some of the best writers in town. In its early days, the JCA programmed too much new material — more than its expert players had time to learn, and more than an audience could digest. (JCA concerts were long.)
But the JCAs have learned. Their “Everybody Loves Ray Charles” tribute a couple of seasons ago was a hit, and at the Mosesian they mixed old and new. (At this point, they have a significant repertoire to draw from.) Guitarist Norm Zocher conducted his arrangement of “Busted” from that concert; Katz led what he called one of his oldest pieces, “Like a Wind,” which dated back to 1980 and was based on a text drawn from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.