Pianist Bill Charlap, always an engaging host, interrupted his concert Tuesday night with a story. As a teenager, he told the audience at New York's 92nd Street Y, he'd met Jule Styne and asked the great Broadway composer, "What makes a great song?â€ Styne's answer: "A simple melody and attractive harmonies.â€
Like most aphorisms, its opposite is also true. Still, Charlap had no trouble making the case for great songs as he kicked off his fifth season as artistic director of the Y's two- week-long "Jazz in Julyâ€ series, one of the city's great new summer traditions.
For an ambitious yet amiable two hours, Charlap led an outstanding group of players through songs by Styne and by Stephen Sondheim. The latter, unlike Styne, writes both words and music, but they collaborated in the creation of the musical "Gypsy,â€ for which Styne composed the music, Sondheim wrote the lyrics (and Ethel Merman became the world's most famous stage mother from Hell).
Two songs from that score were high points of the concert: For "Some People,â€ Charlap was able to show both flying fingers and a transfixing command of harmonic complexity. This was followed by "Small World,â€ sung with aching intimacy by Kurt Elling, the evening's equally commanding vocalist.
Charlap was accompanied by his regular partners, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, along with Brian Lynch on trumpet, Jimmy Greene on tenor saxophone and Jon Gordon on alto sax.
Charlap's wife, Renee Rosnes, sat in on the piano for, among others, a poignant reading by Elling of Sondheim's "Another Hundred People,â€ from "Company.â€ Through a few too- languorous readings, Lynch's pointillist runs cut through the fog with spareness and clarity.