Monday, May 1, 2017

The New York Trio on Venus

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The title of this piece should read - “The New York Trio on Venus Records” - but I thought it was more fun this way .

By way of background, while ruminating on the subject of a recent theme on these pages to do with favorite Jazz recordings, I came across S’Wonderful, a 1998 recording by the Bill Charlap Trio with Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums that Tetsuo Hara produced for his Tokyo-based, Venus Record label.

Since then, Bill, Peter and Kenny have continued working as the Bill Charlap Trio for the past twenty years or so recording as a unit primarily for Blue Note and more recently for Impulse! Records.

But as I dug a little deeper into the Bill Charlap stack, I was suddenly reminded of a major change that had taken place concerning “The New York Trio on Venus Records” for while the label remained the same, the personnel of The New York Trio had changed.

The “new” New York Trio now consisted of pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Bill Stewart.

Beginning in 2001 and concluding in 2007,  this New York Trio issued a new recording on Venus annually.  Here’s a complete listing:

2001 - Blues in the Night
2002 - The Things We Did Last Summer
2003 - Love You Madly
2004 - Stairway to the Stars
2005 - Begin the Beguine
2006 - Thou Swell
2007 - Always

As can be discerned from the CD titles, a consistent theme among them is that each is made up of songs selected from what has come to be known as The Great American Songbook.

Indeed, four of them  - Love You Madly,  Begin the Beguine, Thou Swell and Always are devoted to the work of a single composer: Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart and Irving Berlin, respectively.

Tetsuo Hara and his partner Shuji Kitamura have a penchant for piano-bass-drums trio recordings having produced multiple recordings by artists who shine in this setting among them the late Eddie Higgins, David Hazeltine and Steve Kuhn.

Listening to the pace of the music on these CDs, it seems to me that Tetsuo and Shuji essentially “turn the tape on” and allow the artist to record what they want in a variety of tempos and styles with the only “directive” being to clearly state the melody somewhere along the way, preferably at the outset.

The cover art for many of the Venus CDs provides Mr. Hara with a platform to indulge another of his passions - the depiction of exquisite female models, some of whom are posed quite exotically [erotically?]. Although to be fair, this is not always the case as he also uses some plain vanilla cover art primarily made-up of old time photographs.

Having parents with a broad musical background and who were also involved with the Broadway stage and variety show television may have been an influence on Bill Charlap and his long association throughout his recording career with the Great American Songbook.

If, as the late bassist, composer and bandleader, Charles Mingus asserted -“You have to improvise on something” - why not on some of the best melodies ever written?

The universal timelessness of these songs allows the listener to easily follow these familiar tunes as Bill, Jay and Bill Stewart - who is quite the melodicist notwithstanding the limitations of the drum kit - improvise new melodies over each theme.

By and large, the pace of each track is relaxed with up and medium tempos played in a “frisky” manner and ballads played in a reflective and deliberate way that give the original meaning back to the word “slow” in a Jazz context.

Each tune is thoughtfully arranged with an eye toward creating a sense of adventure for musician and listener alike: how about Blue Skies in 5/4 time?

Many of these songs have a close relationship with composers who lived in New York; some were performed as part of musicals that appeared on the city’s Broadway stages; and all three musicians are based in New York - hence the New York Trio seems particularly appropriate.

The musicianship is unsurpassed, the audio quality is first-rate and the bevy of songs collected on these 7 CDs is a bonanza of piano-bass-drums Jazz that would fast become one of the highlights of any Jazz fan’s collection.

These recordings are also remarkable because you can listen at any point and be instantly fascinated.

Charlap is a master storyteller with commanding interpretive skills.

Masterful, too, is Jay Leonhart’s uncanny ability to select just the right bass notes to determine the harmonic identity of sonorities. In other words, in his quiet way, Jay is influencing Bill’s choice of chord progressions, cadences and modalities.

Bill Stewart has drum chops to spare, but you’d never know it as “spare” is the operative word here in terms of the way he employs his awesome technique in the service of the music: never pushing or pulling but always adding a pulse and a rhythmic pattern to keep the music fresh and alive.

3 musicians + 7 CDs + 67 tracks = piano, bass and drums Jazz heaven.

If Venus is the Roman goddess of beauty and love, my guess is that you will find much to love in the beautiful music of the New York Trio on Venus Records.

The following video features the New York Trio on Duke Ellington's C-Jam Blues.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.