Pianists Bill Charlap and David Hazeltine, both in their thirties, are among the leading jazz interpreters of their generation. Their varied talents are showcased on two new recordings, which also offer telling points of contrast.
Charlap, more the classicist of the two, performs the music of George Gershwin on "The American Soul," which features his superb trio including Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington (no relation) on drums. On several tunes, the group expands to a septet, with trumpeter Nicholas Payton, trombonist Slide Hampton and saxophonists Phil Woods and Frank Wess.
There are plenty of swinging mid- and up-tempo numbers ("Somebody Loves Me," "Liza," " 'S Wonderful," "Nice Work if You Can Get It"), where Charlap's fleet, gliding piano work sparkles, but the heart of the album lies in its generously proportioned ballads. "A Foggy Day" is a searching musical group portrait; tenor saxophonist Wess delivers a relaxed and revealing "How Long Has This Been Going On?"; and alto saxman Woods mixes tenderness and pain on "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."
Building a sensitive piano foundation throughout, Charlap easily balances light-fingered grace with emotional gravity -- no easy trick for any musician. His finest reading may come on the rarely heard "I Was So Young (You Were So Beautiful)," which is practically the definition of refined jazz elegance.
If there's a fault with Charlap, it's that his arrangements sometimes lack a little oomph -- something Hazeltine provides in abundance on "Modern Standards." Like a supercharged car yearning to roar down the open road, Hazeltine slices through his nine selections with a dashing insouciance. A dynamic player most at home in up-tempo numbers, he has a compatible team, in bassist David Williams and drummer Joe Farnsworth, that produces a propulsive sense of swing.
The best and most representative tune is Cy Coleman's "Witchcraft," which Hazeltine spices up with rhythmic variety and harmonic depth. At his best, as in Anthony Newley's "Who Can I Turn To?" and an unexpectedly brisk "Somewhere" by Leonard Bernstein, Hazeltine uses a lot of feints, stops and harmonic shifts, as he explores various options before settling on one direction. He manages to find some musical interest in, of all things, the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love," but his attempt to pull the Isley Brothers' "For the Love of You" out of its R&B origins falls flat.
The only true ballad on the album, Johnny Mandel's "A Time for Love," provides an interesting contrast to Charlap's approach. Hazeltine restlessly searches the edges of rhythm and harmony, adding layers of color, where Charlap prefers the smaller, more nuanced gesture. Their styles may differ, but each player illuminates the music through the prism of his own personality.
Bill Charlap is scheduled to perform Nov. 4 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.