By Lawrence Budmen 

The Miami International Piano Festival (and its parent organization Patrons of Exceptional Artists) threw a party on May 20 when jazz piano virtuoso extraordinaire Bill Charlap took center stage at the Lincoln Theater for an exhilarating evening of music from the Great American Songbook. Charlap possesses a phenomenal pianistic technique. The clarity of his playing (even in the minutest figurations) is astonishing. Unlike many jazz keyboard artists he runs the entire gamut of dynamics and tonal variety. He is clearly no mere musician but a true artist. Charlap clearly relished the opportunity to play on a rich sounding Steinway concert grand. He provided an evening of relaxed, irresistible music making. 

Charlap opened the evening with two songs by Jerome Kern who he regards as “the father of the American popular song.” His stride and swing variations on The Way You Look Tonight were delightfully quirky. A moody performance of Yesterdays (from Roberta) was powerfully emotional. Here Charlap was as much creative artist as performer. 

Three songs by George Gershwin provided a winning showcase for Charlap’s talents. He delivered a bluesy rendition of My Man’s Gone Now from the American operatic classic Porgy and Bess. Charlap’s fizzy scales in Somebody Loves Me served as prologue to a rhapsodic version replete with scintillating tonal coloration. Charlap opened A Foggy Day (from the score for the film Damsel in Distress) with Rhapsody In Blue style slides and runs. His cool, breezy interpretation of this American standard would have even pleased Fred Astaire (for whom the song was originally composed). 

Debussy inspired Impressionism graced Charlap’s introduction to With A Song in My Heart by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. A Bach like contrapuntal section fused jazz and Baroque inflected classicism. A sonorous version of Rodgers and Hart’s Manhattan (combined with Harry Warren’s 42nd Street) was eloquent and romantic in the grand manner. Harold Arlen’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea was all up tempo, witty improvisation. Charlap’s rapid fire passagework in Cole Porter’s It’s Alright with Me was thrilling. 

The waltz While We’re Young by Alec Wilder (a classical composer of superbly crafted chamber music scores) was wonderfully graceful and elegant. Charlap’s final cadenza was breathtaking. His sensitive delineation of Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You soared with gentle, lyrical luster. Expansive and dotted with blue notes, Charlap’s reinvention of The Boy Next Door (from the film Meet Me in St. Louis) by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine was utterly enchanting with its flowing waves of rhythmic and harmonic fancy. When Day is Done became a lively romp. Charlap’s wild octaves on Jerry Mulligan’s Rocker were idiosyncratic and exciting. Flamingo (popularized by Duke Ellington) had the soft styling of Parisian chic. This intoxicating tune glistened with luminous tonal sheen. 

The music of Leonard Bernstein, one of America’s true geniuses, was the sine qua non of this musical feast. Charlap recast Glitter and Be Gay (from Candide) as a jazzy lament. His version of Somewhere (from West Side Story) had the grandeur of Tchaikovsky with pensive chords ringing ominously in conclusion. Charlap’s wild, iconoclastic riffs on Cool (from West Side Story) concluded a sparkling evening of red, white, and blue musical magic. 

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