Kurt's Press Archive

One evening in the early '60s, the bassist Charlie Haden was playing at the Village Vanguard as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet. He was in the middle of a particularly intense solo, and he decided to close his eyes. When he opened them at the end of the solo, he was surprised to see a distinguished-looking gentleman kneeling in front of the bass, almost pressing his ear into the bridge, as if he didn't want to miss a single note. Startled, Mr. Haden turned to Mr. Coleman, who informed him in a stage whisper, "That's Leonard Bernstein."

Bernstein's admiration for jazz was well known: In his role as the primary symphonic conductor of his generation, Bernstein (1918-90) went out of his way to devise projects that included, among others, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. As a composer of theater music, he incorporated rhythms and harmonies he learned from swing bands, beboppers, and stride and boogie-woogie pianists. From Bill Evans's marvelously intimate "Some Other Time" (and its variation "Peace Piece") to Stan Kenton's masterful reinterpretation of the entire "West Side Story" score, there's a long tradition of jazzmen addressing Bernstein's show music.

In 2003, the pianist Bill Charlap released one of the finest-ever jazz albums of Bernstein's music, "Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein," and on Tuesday, he opened his fourth season as artistic director of the 92nd Street Y's Jazz in July series with a concert bearing that same title. As I observed when Lincoln Center mounted a Broadway-centric tribute to Bernstein in January, there's something about the composer that brings out the best in everybody who plays his music: Between Broadway, the symphony, and the jazz band, Bernstein truly represents, to swipe a song title from "Candide," the best of all possible worlds.

Tuesday's presentation was one of the very best in the long history of Jazz in July. In addition to reprising some of the trio numbers from his album, Mr. Charlap also annexed three additional horn players to his group: the alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, the towering tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene (the Jolly Greene Giant), and the trumpeter Brian Lynch, as well as two additional guest stars in the singer Kurt Elling and the pianist Ted Rosenthal.

Throughout the evening, Mr. Charlap showed that he learned the lesson of his predecessor, Jazz in July founder Dick Hyman: that it's possible to make jazz accessible (even the more modern varieties) with a little theatrical presentation. Case in point, the pianist began with a reconstructed version of "America" (from "West Side Story") in a lighter Latin tempo than usual, on top of which all three horns passed across the stage, soloing individually without interacting. It achieved the desired affect of grabbing the audience's attention. All the while, Kenny Washington, Mr. Charlap's longtime drummer, was playing with more energy and aggression than I've ever heard from him.

Mr. Lynch supplied the sextet with outstanding arrangements, which I hope will be recorded at some point, including a retooled "Mambo" (also "West Side Story"). He made it into less of a "Symphonic Dance" and more like an actual Afro-Cuban salsa, à la Eddie Palmieri or Ray Barretto. His treatment of "Something's Coming" employed a 6/8 rhythm, hinted at the famous "Milestones" vamp, and used beautifully harmonized substitute chords. Mr. Rosenthal devised a hard-bop quintet treatment of "Lonely Town" as the Jazz Messengers might have played it in 1960. He also essayed a solo treatment of "Wrong Note Rag," delivering the piece from "Wonderful Town" as a playful exercise in musical morality; he flirted with the notion of how "wrong" notes can be made to sound right by means of manipulating the context, and how dissonant notes can be used as a tonal equivalent of syncopation.

Mr. Elling was precisely the right vocalist for the evening, with his '50s hepster persona for once taking a back seat to his sturdy baritone. His "Lucky To Be Me" and "Maria" were, like almost everything he sings, slightly left-of-center and a tiny bit deliberately askew, even when he phrased solidly on the beat. "Some Other Time" and "Somewhere" were, ingeniously, both duo and trio numbers at the same time: He sang the melodies movingly at the beginning and end with just Mr. Charlap's accompaniment, but in the instrumental breaks in the center, the full trio (with the bassist Peter Washington) played respectful variations.

The whole sextet wound up with "Cool" at the finale, in which Mr. Elling did one of his characteristic poetry interjections, reciting "The Pool Players," a brief text constructed in a jazzy meter by the Afro-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks. There were many more Bernstein songs that I would like to have heard this cast of players tackle, but, oh well, we'll catch up some other time.