by Marilyn Lester
Who couldn’t love a Cole Porter song? Certainly there must be very few, as Jazz in July Artistic Director and host Bill Charlap explained, citing Porter as the “Beethoven” of songwriters. Porter, a writer of both music and lyrics, had the ability to create entire worlds in his compositions—a proposition proved over an entire intimate evening of mostly cool jazz Porter hits.
But first there was swing, with Charlap at the keys and the Washingtons, Peter and Kenny, on double bass and drums, respectively. The trio has been together for two decades and play with remarkable synergy. They also share a lyrical approach to rhythmic patterns that even when drifting into improvisation doesn’t stray too far from melody. The three created an impeccable musical and dramatic arc with “Dream Dancing,” featuring a Peter Washington bass solo that was a breathtaking free-flow of melodic wonderment. When the trio later swung “In the Still of the Night,” Kenny Washington demonstrated a similar proclivity on drums, with a partiality to brushes and a delicacy of play that elevated percussion to new heights.
Charlap, who gets his entire body wonderfully into his playing, is a witty interpreter of music, treating his improvisation like scat. In the way Ella Fitzgerald interpolated snippets of musical ideas in her scatting, Charlap does the same—a riff on Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” for example, was cleverly inserted into the first Porter piece. As a soloist, Charlap let loose with a few free-form improvisations on “Anything Goes,” humorously taking the title of the song literally.
Guest musician, tenor saxophonist, Harry Allen, plays his axe in a similar style to the Charlap trio. Allen was exposed early on to the playing of Ellington’s great tenor play, Paul Gonsalves, and then later attuned to the style of greats Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. As a traditionalist, he’s become known for his interpretation of standards. In two numbers with the trio, “It’s All Right with Me” and “I Concentrate On You,” the interchanges and musical hand-offs among the players were as smooth as the jazz was swinging. A largely cool jazz approach to “Everything I Love / You Do Something to Me” with the duo of Charlap and Allen, proved pleasing and harmonious, with a synergy like the proverbial peas in a pod. With vocalist, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Allen’s ability as a balladist of the instrument lent texture to the singer’s stylings. The call and response between the two on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” was one of the high points in Salvant’s repertoire.
Not yet thirty years old, Salvant has become to a large chunk of the jazz world, a wunderkind. Some have even gone so far as to compare her to Ella Fitzgerald (who Duke Ellington rightly and accurately said was “beyond category”). Salvant’s closest inspirations are Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, whose influences are to be heard in her delivery. With the Charlap trio she sang distressingly slow, unnecessarily drawn out versions of several songs, notably “You’re the Top” and ‘So In Love,” and with Charlap alone, “Just One of Those Things,” which was delivered almost as a dirge. And here is the problem with Salvant: she’s affected to the point of annoyance. The strutting, the posturing and the faux kittenish inflections (completely derivative of Holiday) are gimmicks that get in the way of her true talent. And make no mistake, Salvant is truly talented. Beneath the airs and graces there’s a genuine knack for storytelling. Her interpretation of the lyric on “I Get a Kick Out of You” was a spot-on delight. She’s also got a superb range, enormous flexibility, and a crystal-clear tone that does give her the right to take her place among the best of her generation—all the more reason Salvant should focus on her talents and give up the formulaic tricks. Her best efforts are on strong swing numbers which don’t allow her to try to impress so hard. Her vocals on “All Through the Night” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” were glimmers into the Salvant that could be. Two of the most satisfying numbers of the program were the closers, with full cast, a swinging “Easy to Love” with a bossa beat, and a hard-swing “Night and Day,” which played out the tribute in a rousing celebration of both jazz and the extraordinary Cole Porter.
Jazz in July—Cole Porter: Easy To Love took place July 25 at The 92nd Street Y (1395 Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street) 212-415-5500, www.92Y.org
Photos: Richard Termine