by Marilyn Lester
Appropriately, music director and pianist Bill Charlap, with his long-time side men Peter Washington on upright bass and Kenny Washington on drums, opened Broadway to Harlem, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, with Bye-Bye Birdie’s “Put On a Happy Face.” This song set the mood for the entire evening, underscored by the immediate appearance of the venerable master balladeer, Freddy Cole. Cole sang a convincing “It Could Happen to You” and a sweet “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” He was relaxed and rested and in fine form. At age 84, with the voice no longer what it was in youth (though still an “autumnal baritone”), he wisely concentrates on impeccable phrasing and putting maximum meaning into the lyric. He’s a master at that, and should serve as a role model for Cécile McLorin Salvant, who took the stage next. Salvant has been much praised and lauded in jazz circles. It’s true that she has a powerful, clear instrument of great range, but to these ears, she’s too invested in vocal theatrics to be truly soulful or effective. Salvant’s “All Through the Night,” followed by “Lush Life” were tricked up interpretations that failed to allow a connection to the material, or the singer. As Salvant matures, one hopes she will take a cue from elders like Cole, and from other grande dames of jazz, who know the importance of allowing the depth of the music to shine through and beyond the instrument while still maintaining a unique style.
Maturity and its expression in virtuosity was clearly on hand in abundance with two adept musicians: tenor saxophonist, Houston Person and clarinetist Ken Peplowski. Person, whose instrument seems to be a natural extension of his body, plays a straight-ahead, clean sound with plenty of inbuilt soul. He accompanied Salvant on “Some of These Days” and “You Taught My Heart to Sing.” When Freddy Cole retook the stage to perform “Jelly, Jelly,” the two old-timers showed why, as Charlap remarked, the blues is at the center of all American music. For Peplowski’s turn on stage, he and Charlap performed “After You’ve Gone” at the speed of light, with fingers awesomely moving along the keys and valves. This sheer wizardry was followed by a slow, wistful, rich interpretation of “Memories of You.” In the second act, the Harlem section of Broadway to Harlem, Peplowski played “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” with delightful flourishes, and then “Charleston” a stride standard, which called for masterful finger work by both clarinetist and pianist.
Charlap, like the many musicians who know the debt American music owes to him, began the Harlem segment of the evening with a verbal and musical homage to Duke Ellington. The Charlap trio excelled on a lyrical and mellow “Sophisticated Lady,” followed by the addition of Cole and Person for “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” With “Prelude to a Kiss,” Cole coaxed every word of the lyric to reveal its maximum meaning, while Person offered a tone parallel with his beguiling sax accompaniment. Salvant returned to the stage with a curious choice, an overly extravagant “I Feel Pretty.” Then, with Person, she offered “Misty,” providing plenty of vocal gymnastics in contrast to the pure soul-sound of Person’s instrument. For a rousing finale, the entire cast bid an appreciative audience (which included the august Tony Bennett) so long with “Alright, Okay, You Win.” It was a delightful evening of jazz in which everyone went into the night a winner.
Bill Charlap: Broadway to Harlem Friday and Saturday Evening, April 8–9, 2016, at 8:00
Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at West 60 Street, 212-258-9922, www.jazz.org