Over the course of more than thirty albums as a leader, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton has had some inspired encounters with jazz greats, including pianists Gene Harris and Dave McKenna, guitarists Charlie Byrd and Bucky Pizzarelli, trumpeters Ruby Braff and Warren Vache, saxophonists Flip Phillips and Gerry Mulligan, and vocalists Maxine Sullivan and Rosemary Clooney. Now he can add to that elite list the name of Bill Charlap, whose wonderful piano trio (featuring bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington) fits perfectly with Hamilton’s warm-toned, effortlessly swinging tenor sax on Back In New York.
Back in New York, recorded in the city that the saxophonist once called home for 25-years, is a collection of swinging jazz standards that Hamilton has frequently played in concert but has never recorded¾until now. With his trademark robust tone and relaxed, fluid delivery, Hamilton puts his stamp on chestnuts like Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Lerner & Lowe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” and Sammy Cahn’s “Wonder Why.” And, his irrepressible swing factor ignites bop anthems like Dizzy Gillespie’s “Blue ‘N’ Boogie” and Bud Powell’s “Bouncing With Bud.” Throughout, Charlap’s tightly-knit trio (a working unit since 1997 with a string of acclaimed recordings to its credit) enhances the program with uncanny empathy and a willingness to selflessly serve the song. A consummate accompanist and player of extraordinary sensitivity and harmonic sophistication, the pianist brings an elegant touch to the proceedings, blending brilliantly with Hamilton’s signature lyricism.
Hamilton first met Charlap in the early 1990s. “I remember going to see Phil Woods at the Iridium in New York, and Bill did a trio number in the middle of the set that was so musical,” says the bandleader. “I was stunned by the absolute musicality of his playing. It’s just something that really got to me. He’s really got that ability to communicate on a much deeper level, which is so rare.” The pair performed together for the first time in Spain about five years ago, which became the catalyst for this collaboration.
Hamilton is also intimately acquainted with the tasteful rhythm section playing of drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington (no relation) and admits to wanting to record with them for a long time. “I’ve known Kenny since we played together when he was about 18,” says Scott of the 47-year-old drummer, who has been a ubiquitous figure on the New York jazz session scene for years. “And, Peter was supposed to play on the Tommy Flanagan date that I did some years ago (1997’s After Hours). However, he had a family emergency and unfortunately couldn’t make it.”
From the first note of the CD, however, one would easily be fooled into believing that this quartet had been performing together regularly for years. Charlap’s highly interactive trio demonstrate a remarkable chemistry from track to track on Back in New York, elevating the proceedings with a buoyant, self-assured sense of swing that is only found in the most seasoned of groups. “The thing that gets to me is how many things I didn’t hear at the time that we were in the studio,” says Hamilton. “When I was playing with them it just felt good. But, the things the trio does behind me are so subtle, and there are so many of them, you almost don’t appreciate them just hearing it live. It makes you glad there’s a recording of it, so you can go back and really check out the intricacies of what they were doing.”
They come charging out of the gate in jaunty fashion on a spirited rendition of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” After a smoky, Ben Webster-ish tenor intro by Hamilton, the quartet skips into brisk swing mode with Scott leading the way. Both Hamilton’s and Charlap’s solos are marvels of melodic invention in fluid swing time. Note Charlap’s delicate accompaniment behind Peter Washington’s agile bass solo here. The trio’s take on the Sammy Cahn-Nikolaus Brodszky nugget “Wonder Why” is a model of soulful restraint and easy-flowing momentum that recalls quintessential jazz piano trios led by the likes of Bobby Timmons, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. Hamilton naturally takes to this kind of laid-back swing feel with sheer delight, turning in some of his most expressive playing on Back In New York.
The four get frisky on Dizzy’s aptly-titled “Blue ‘N’ Boogie,” an up tempo romp showcasing Hamilton’s bluesy, jam-oriented side and reflecting the influence of such important tenor sax icons as Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Gene Ammons and Flip Phillips. Shifting gears dramatically, they next turn in a sublime rendition of the Broadway show tune “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”(from My Fair Lady), which is underscored by Kenny Washington’s sensitive brushwork and highlighted by Hamilton’s lush tone and lyrical approach, alongside Charlap’s graceful piano accompaniment. “Lullaby Of The Leaves” is another brilliant example of the quartet easing into an effortless midtempo swing groove, which is firmly anchored by Peter Washington’s steady, deep-toned pulse and marked by some particularly interactive drumming from Kenny Washington.
“Fine And Dandy” is a crackling up tempo jamming vehicle that provides plenty of sparks along the way. Hamilton turns in some of his most exuberant tenor playing here, while Charlap tips his hat to Hank Jones in his own ebulliently swinging solo on this surging Swing Era staple (from a 1930 Broadway musical of the same name by George Gershwin intimate Kay Swift). On “Bouncing With Bud,” Hamilton and Charlap link up with tight unison lines on the head before letting loose with some freewheeling improv, while Mssrs. Washington supply the requisite bounce. They also turn in an alluring bossa nova rendition of the Victor Young-Edward Heymann standard “Love Letters” and offer a sublime reading of the stirring Harry Warren-Mack Gordon ballad “This Is Always.” Charlap’s delicate touch and deep harmonic language is highlighted in the middle section here when the rhythm section drops out, allowing Hamilton and Charlap to engage in a refined dialogue of lush tones and lyrical intentions.
The beguiling closer, “I’ve Just Seen Her,” is from an obscure Broadway show from the 1960s called All-American. As Hamilton explains, “Duke Ellington had made a record of songs from that show. It’s kind of an unmemorable record, in a lot of ways, except for this one tune where Paul Gonsalves plays this ballad. Years later, I did a record date with Gerry Mulligan where we played that tune (1986’s Soft Lights & Sweet Music on Concord Jazz). And, as it turned out, Bill later recorded it on one of his albums (1998’s All Through The Night on Criss Cross). He told me, ‘The reason I recorded that song is because I had that recording that you made with Gerry Mulligan and I liked it.’ So, when we finally got together, I thought ‘I’ve Just Seen Her’ has to be one of the tracks on the CD.”
From start to finish, Hamilton strikes a wonderful chemistry with Charlap’s trio on Back in New York. Together they cast a charming, easy-swinging spell that goes down like late-night cognac. As Peter Straub says in the liner notes: “It’s like (Stan) Getz or (Sonny) Stitt on their records with (Oscar) Peterson’s trio: playing that suggests absolute relaxation combined with a deep, unfailing well of inspired ideas.” Let’s hope Hamilton makes it back to New York again soon.