Bernstein as a Fount of Fusion

Elegance without ostentation: that would describe the overview of Leonard Bernstein songs that the pianist Bill Charlap and the singer Kurt Elling brought to Bernstein’s theater music at the opening program of the 92nd Street Y’s Jazz in July series on Tuesday evening. Bernstein, especially in his score for “West Side Story,” which dominated the concert, created some of the most operatically ambitious music ever composed for Broadway. Emotional extravagance, swirling urban color, Latin American fireworks — in other words, flamboyant ostentation — are its hallmarks.
For the concert, “Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein,” Mr. Charlap was joined by Peter Washington on bass, Kenny Washington on drums, Brian Lynch on trumpet, Jimmy Greene on tenor sax and Joe Gordon on alto sax. Except for the guest pianist Ted Rosenthal’s rollicking “Wrong Note Rag,” Bernstein’s exuberance was discreetly tamped down, the songs treated as impeccably worked-out think pieces removed from their theatrical origins. Instead of conjuring familiar lyrics and the star-crossed passion of Tony and Maria, the concert considered Bernstein’s still-fresh fusion of pop, bebop and Afro-Cuban jazz.

Even those songs that were sung — “Lucky to Be Me,” “Maria,” “Somewhere,” “Some Other Time” and “Cool” — were held at arm’s length by Mr. Elling who exhibited a detached technical perfectionism and attention to tonal shading. At times he recalled Mel Tormé, the suave master of genial pop-jazz balladry who could break loose into machine-gun scat. But Mr. Elling maintained an even loftier sense of distance. There was no breaking loose. Near the end of “Cool,” he interpolated a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, reciting it Beat style with piano, bass and drums.

Among several polished ensemble arrangements, the best was “Something’s Coming.” Featuring the close, slightly dissonant harmonies of Mr. Green, Mr. Gordon and Mr. Lynch, it evoked lines of traffic slipping down a midnight avenue; wild teenage expectation translated into slouching urban cool.

Mr. Rosenthal’s version of “Wrong Note Rag” lent the evening a welcome dash of slapstick comedy. He played it as though two clowns were roughhousing, one doing pratfalls and sticking out his tongue, while the other played sedate stride piano.

As the evening’s unfailingly courtly host Mr. Charlap was deferential to his guests. But I would rather have heard him perform all the songs without instruments other than a rhythm section.