Inside the tune “Cool,” from “West Side Story,” is a 50’s-era crime jazz theme song, just yearning to become the intro to a cop show.
Jazz pianist Bill Charlap liberates that essence in his classic collection, “Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein.”
The first tune on this suite of recordings by Charlap and his trio is “Cool,” and suddenly, in Charlap’s hands, Bernstein’s jazz bona fides are obvious.
“Certainly Bernstein is a jazz man, although he wasn’t a jazz pianist or anything of the sort,” said Charlap in a conversation from his office at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., where he is director of jazz studies.
Bernstein’s music was saturated with the sounds of Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky and Gustav Mahler, but it was also imbued with George Gershwin, and with Gershwin’s “love affair with African-American song,” said Charlap.
The composer was a synthesizer of cultures, which makes Bernstein’s music a good choice for Charlap and his trio to play at the Atlanta History Center, March 7, to kick off the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival. The combination of Bernstein and Charlap is a great fit for the festival, because of Bernstein’s enormous influence as a composer, conductor and intellectual who happens to be Jewish, and because of Charlap’s swinging, irresistible versions of Bernstein’s most popular music.
Charlap’s appearance also represents a dream come true for the festival’s young organizer, Joe Alterman, who used his driver’s license for the first time 14 years ago to see Charlap perform at the Woodruff Arts Center, as part of Atlanta’s Montreux Jazz Festival.
Charlap was one of his guide-stars as Alterman himself became a well-respected jazz pianist who today gigs around the country.
“He is somebody I emulated for years,” said the 30-year-old Alterman. “His beautiful soft touch disguises how strange and odd some of the stuff he plays is,” he said admiringly. “People say ‘that’s so straight-ahead.’ No. It’s out there.”
The choice of Alterman as a new director of the festival in its 10th year signals a change in philosophy. “So far it’s been a festival about showcasing Jewish performers,” said Alterman.
But he sees a case for examining the broader impact. “When I think of what Jews have contributed to the world of music, it’s really what we’ve contributed — beyond performing — that bridges different cultures. For example, someone like Alan Lomax is a huge hero to me.”
Lomax was an indefatigable collector of folk music, in the U.S. and overseas, which he recorded, published and brought to the world’s attention. He spent equal time on the music of white rural Appalachians and blues-playing black Mississippi Deltans, but also paid attention to Andean pan-pipers, flamenco guitar and gamelan orchestras.
The festival will honor a pair Lomax contemporaries, brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, Jewish immigrants from Poland, whose Chess record label became one of the great outlets for blues and rhythm and blues. Their appreciation for the music of African-Americans, and their ability to market that music to a broad audience, is part of the story of how Jews influenced American music.
“Anyone of any culture can identify with these stories, that are both uniquely Jewish and uniquely American,” said Alterman.
Leonard Bernstein demonstrates that ability to appreciate and reflect different worlds, not just in “West Side Story,” but in the upcoming “Chichester Psalms,” with lyrics in Hebrew, which will be performed April 11, 13 and 14 by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Charlap finds many wellsprings in Bernstein’s sounds. His intro to “Ohio,” from the musical “Wonderful Town,” has a 19th century, Stephen Foster sound.
“He was learning to write a cowboy song, that’s what it is,” said Charlap.
The recording is dominated by ballads, but on “Jump,” Charlap and his trio, featuring drummer Kenny Washington, take off at breakneck speed, maintaining a jet-engine clip without breaking a sweat.
Charlap doesn’t see the tempo as special. “Playing fast is a color,” he said. “Playing slow is a color. They’re all different things.” He added mischievously, “We can play it faster than that. We feel the time, underneath the time. You know the time is perfect in the center. You can always find it.”
IF YOU GO
The Atlanta Jewish Music Festival begins March 7 and continues through March 17.
Bill Charlap Trio
“Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein.” 7:30 p.m., Thursday. March 7, $40-$65. Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Road. 404-814-4000, atlantahistorycenter.com.
A brother-sister musical act featuring Clyde and Gracie Lawrence. 9 p.m., Saturday. March 9, $25-$30. Vinyl at Center Stage, 1374 West Peachtree St. 404-885-1365, centerstage-atlanta.com.
A Salute to Hollywood
The best original songs from the Academy Awards, featuring Bob Spiotto and Deb Bowman. 5 p.m., Sunday. March 10, $36. Breman Museum, 1440 Spring St. (the entrance is on 18th St., across from the Center for Puppetry Arts). 678-222-3700, thebreman.org.
“There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream”
Musician and historian Ben Sidran discusses the social history of the Jewish contribution to American popular music. 7:30 p.m., Thursday. March 14, $20. Ahavath Achim Synagogue, 600 Peachtree Battle Ave. 404-355-5222, aasynagogue.org.
“Jewish Contributions to American Music: Bob Dylan, Beastie Boys & Beyond”
Featuring Rolling Stone critic Alan Light, 6:30 p.m. (service); 8:15 p.m. (conversation), Friday. March 15, free. Shabbat service. Temple Sinai, 5645 Dupree Drive, Sandy Springs. 404-252-3073, templesinaiatlanta.org.
“The ATL Collective Relives the Sounds of Chess Records”
6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Saturday, March 16, $25-$40. Venkman’s, 740 Ralph McGill Blvd. 470-225-6162, venkmans.com,
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