Pianist Bill Charlap definitely isn't the type of guy who goes out of his way to attract attention. Check out the covers of his last two solo albums, both on Blue Note: Written in the Stars features an understated black-and-white photo of the artist with neatly combed hair and conservative suit and tie, staring intently out at any potential CD buyer; on Stardust, it's more of the same -- just Charlap in an indeterminate setting, not even looking at the camera this time. For Charlap, evidently, what's important isn't him but the music on his CD. Anyone who's taken the time to listen to his music over the past few years would readily agree. Written in the Stars gained enough critical acclaim to make quite a few jazz best-of lists in 2000, and Stardust is sure to follow suit.
A native of Manhattan, Charlap grew up immersed in music. His father was a Broadway songwriter, and his mother sang cabaret. Much of his repertoire betrays these formative influences, relying heavily on classic songwriters such as the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael. What sets Charlap apart is his imaginative, unique take on the "great American songbook" tradition. He's liable to break into improvisation from the opening notes of a tune, sailing into uncharted territory before bringing the listener back with an entirely fresh perspective on a standard that might, in other hands, seem like a chestnut. Charlap makes a rare St. Louis appearance Monday at Generations, where he'll be performing solo. For a jazz pianist, that's tantamount to performing a high-wire act without a net.