Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap face to face and note to note at Salle Gésu   ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap face to face and note to note at Salle Gésu ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes
Montreal Jazz Festival, Salle Gésu
Monday, July 2, 2012 - 10:30 p.m.

When I think of a classic piano duet, I remember one I saw a few years ago at the Montreal Jazz Festival between Kenny Barron and Chucho Valdés. It was a friendly duel, with each pianist responding to and teasing each other and having a great good time. They played standards, and they improvised from those and from each other – and you could always tell there were two separate pianists in the room.

Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap don't play duets that way.

Having heard them twice recently, at the Ottawa Jazz Festival (June 29) and at the Montreal Jazz Festival, I was struck both times by how much they sounded like one instrument – with more depth and more notes, certainly, but with an assured coordination and understanding.

Much of the material played at both concerts came from their Double Portrait [Blue Note, 2010] album, in which they first played as a duo. These were songs they were familiar with, and not only that, familiar with playing together. In Montreal, they opened with "Never Will I Marry", which closes the album – an ironic note to the fact with Charlap and Rosnes are, in fact, married. They did not make a big deal of this at either concert: a kiss at the end, walking off hand in hand, and Charlap telling the Ottawa audience, “Yes, we're married.”

Rosnes is well known for her work with instrumentalists like Joe Henderson and J.J. Johnson, and as a former member of the SFJazz Collective (she appeared with them in Ottawa in March, 2009). Charlap is better known for his trio music, particularly his readings of jazz standards from Broadway or Leonard Bernstein. The Montreal set list combined both preferences: like the album, it ranged from George Gershwin to Henderson, from Bill Evans to Wayne Shorter.

None of the pieces was given a free jazz or atonal rendering, but neither were these simple recountings of the melody. Rather, they were substantial interpretations, with each adding to and exploring new aspects of the music. On Henderson's “Inner Urge”, for example, Rosnes initially took the lead on the up-tempo piece, with Charlap adding occasional grace notes, but they soon traded off and continued to do so, each giving the other room to explore the piece, in an extended version.

“The Saros Cycle” is the cycle of solar and lunar eclipses. Rosnes' original of that title is a quiet ballad, almost starry in places. In their Montreal rendition, Charlap's fast, fluid high line was underlined by Rosnes' bass line, and which ended with her long, resonant bass note.

“The Last Time I Saw Paris”, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein (which Charlap noted was the only song they wrote which was not part of a musical) began with a few light notes by Charlap and then the melody. The two pianists frequently traded the lead throughout the song, continuing to keep it delicate and sensitive, and when the song ended with three treble notes, there was an extended silence before even more extended applause. A similar reaction greeted “My Man's Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess: dead silence for 20 seconds, and then strong applause.

After a standing ovation, Rosnes and Charlap slowed down with an encore of Gerry Mulligan's “Little Glory”, a ballad which they played together in coordination: thoughtfully, simply, and elegantly.

Throughout both concerts, the two were in constant communication, both musically and visually, clearly watching each other for cues. In Montreal, they were noticeably closer: in both concerts their pianos nestled nose to tail, but the Montreal pianos were six-feet long Yamahas, whereas in Ottawa each piano was at least ten feet long.

In Ottawa, Charlap and Rosnes played two concerts, and the first, which we attended, was almost completely full except for a few scattered seats. In contrast, Salle Gésu had many empty rows – possibly because of direct competition from the high-profile Miles Smiles concert at Place des Arts.

The Ottawa concert was also more relaxed, with a happy vibe between audience and musicians (although the audiences in both cities were highly appreciative). Rosnes was dressed more formally in black for the Montreal concert, and whereas in Ottawa both she and Charlap frequently talked and joked with the audience, in Montreal they announced and briefly talked about the songs' background but seemed to be more concerned about not going over time.

Ultimately what I enjoyed about both concerts was the interesting choice of material and how comfortable both pianists were in interpreting it. While well within the jazz mainstream, many of the pieces were unusual for solo or duo piano, and more vibrant and challenging because of that. And combined with a careful and finely-tuned collaboration, those choices produced memorable concerts.

    – Alayne McGregor

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