Celebrated conductor, humanitarian, educator, and the first American-born composer to receive worldwide fame, Leonard Bernstein was the inspiration for Sunday evening’s Gilmore Festival performance from the Bill Charlap Trio at Western Michigan University’s Williams Theatre, which was transformed into a jazz club with candlelit tables set up cabaret style while the exceptional musicians played a lovely 75-minute set of original jazz variations of Bernstein’s gorgeous and often dramatic works.
Bernstein wrote ballets, operas, film scores and musicals in addition to orchestral, choral and baroque compositions; he conducted and directed the New York Philharmonic; and he received numerous accolades for his many achievements.
He is however best known for having composed the music for “West Side Story,” and several of its most recognizable songs created the through line for this performance.
Bill Charlap on piano, Kenny Washington on drums, and Peter Washington on bass are New York-based musicians who have celebrated 20 years together, and they opened the second show of the evening with a busy, full rendition of “I Want to Live in America.” Charlap carried the melody while Washington drove a steady bass line and spunky improvisational interludes interrupted expectations.
Charlap offered minimal narration about the songs they played, preferring the music to communicate most directly with the audience. Bernstein was always writing about New York City: Mahler, Stravinsky, Copland and Gershwin were major influences; he often collaborated with Stephen Sondheim. These were facts Charlap shared, and he also offered opinions about which tunes were his favorite and who sang them best.
Songs often began with a piano solo with the bass and drums coming in for support after a minute or so, including an achingly lovely “Lonely Town” from “On The Town,” which Charlap described as one of Bernstein’s most evocative melodies, and “Big Stuff” from the ballet “Fancy Free” which Billie Holiday sang most definitively, he added.
Dressed in conservative suits and ties with a polite and reserved affect, the musicians expressed a profound range of emotion in their playing — perhaps most notably in the variations from “West Side Story.”
In addition to the opening piece, highlights included a playful, dramatic and sweet “I Feel Pretty” and a deeply felt “There’s a Place for Us” with careful pacing that moved into more joyful rhythm and bass to devastatingly dramatic with a muscular transition into a wonderfully rambunctious “Jet Song” in which fight choreography could practically be heard. And in between the two they played a wonderfully uptempo piece in which crisp cymbals and snare gave way to rapid-fire contrapuntal militaristic drums with a syncopated piano that built to an amazing crescendo.
Much as each number had its own dramatic arc, the evening’s set took the audience on a journey of not just Bernstein’s major celebrated works, but how three fine and impassioned musicians can make them their own, inviting the audience to hear and appreciate old favorites anew.
Bill Charlap Trio
Williams Theatre, Western Michigan University