You might say pianist Bill Charlap was born to play standards. His father, Moose Charlap, was a Broadway composer best known for his iconic musical "Peter Pan." His mother, singer Sandy Stewart, had a major pop hit with "My Coloring Book" in 1963. In recent years, collaborations with her son have revived her career.
Although his father died when he was eight, "I remember everything about him," Charlap says. "He was a very powerful force. He was effervescent in his love of music and his love of life. You could feel his passion for composing. He wasn't a great singer, but he sang his own songs in a gripping way."
Charlap doesn't play many of his father's songs in concert because, "like Stephen Sondheim's songs, the music is theatre music," Charlap says. "Songs like 'I'm Flying' and 'I've Gotta Crow,' they're marvelous in theatre, but they are not standards."
He does perform "I'll Never Go There Anymore," a Moose Charlap tune sited in an article about songs Sondheim wished he had written. As for his mother, "She is one of the great popular singers," Charlap says, "a great song singer who also swings."
Charlap loves the Great American Songbook. He has recorded entire albums of the songs of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein. He is reluctant to name favorites but says those three, along with Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers, are on his Mount Rushmore.
With the exception of Cole Porter, who wrote words and music, those six are all composers. But Charlap says he always thinks of a song's lyrics as he plays.
"Alan Bergman said, 'The words need to drip off the notes,' " Charlap says. He offers "On a Clear Day," with Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics set to Burton Lane's music, as a perfect example and proceeds to quote an entire verse. "It took him forever to write that lyric," says Charlap. "It's so magnificently connected to the notes."
When asked if anyone today is writing those kinds of classics, Charlap says there are many different ways of writing songs. He offers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan, and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, as examples.
One person who does not write songs is Bill Charlap. "I'm not a composer," he says. "I'm 52. If I were a composer, I would have written something significant by now. My wife is a composer; she writes in a very organic way."
He's referring to Renee Rosnes, another superb pianist. The couple famously has two Steinway grand pianos entwined in their living room. They have recorded and played concerts together.
"She's my best friend, my partner, the love of my life, and a musician I respect," Charlap says.
Charlap is not only known as a great interpreter of standards. He paid his dues for years on the road with some of the greatest musicians in jazz including Gerry Mulligan, Benny Carter, Clark Terry and Phil Woods.
He's also worked extensively with singers like Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett. He won a Grammy Award for his album with Bennett in 2015.
So, is there anything he hasn't done, any musician he'd love to work with? Charlap takes a minute to think and asks if it has to be in this world.
"I'd like to play with Louis Armstrong, and Billy Holliday," says Charlap. But, back in reality, he's still reaching for goals. "What it is I'd like to do with my music is an elusive vision. I can feel it; I can't quite get to it."
Having been enveloped in music all his life, he knows its importance. "We need music because speech is very limited," says Charlap. "Music expresses things we can't put into words."