Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart made everyone at The Egg on Sunday feel that we wore tuxes and gowns. Their mostly-Gershwin duo show had a rare elegance, depth and restraint that invited the audience deeply into the music and rewarded their rapt attention.
Charlap warmed up the audience with nearly an hour of solo piano that was equal parts tribute to Gershwin the composer; lecture on his achievements, importance and influence; and overwhelming virtuoso display. At first, he stood between songs to address the audience; later he spoke from the bench, eager to dive back into Gershwin’s river of song, which he navigated with bravura technique. “S’Wonderful” seemed to survey Gershwin’s inspirations in jazz with eloquent lyricism and bouncy stride episodes. He swung “A Foggy Day,” first gently, then emphatically, and he linked “Embraceable You” to bebop by citing Charlie Parker’s inspiration, without delving into bop himself.
Playing Vernon Duke’s slow, sweet “A Penny for Your Thoughts” and the more robust “Not a Care in the World” was less a detour than an amplification, demonstrating Gershwin’s influence through the thoughts of a disciple. Charlap returned to Gershwin in bold explorations of “My Man’s Gone Now,” a lovely, lush ballad from “Porgy and Bess,” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It” — played about as fast as possible and decorated with many a zippy flourish, yet brilliantly clear.
When Charlap returned after the break, he said that his half of the show had only contained half of the songs he’d played, that the lyric was everything, his respectful way of introducing his mother, singer Sandy Stewart.
How shrewd and clever of her to raise such a sensitive and skillful accompanist; and how sensitive and skillful of him to rein in his amazing technique to her deliberate and delicious tempos.
“The Man I Love” and “Looking for a Boy” made a perfect pair as she gentled her way through them; one contented, one searching. She recreated the diptych of “I’ve Got a Crush On You” and “Do It Again” from their duets album “Love Is Here to Stay,” issuing a flirty come-on, then cruising back to “Crush,” making the logic of this segue sound impeccable.
To provide context, they inserted non-Gershwin gems “Tea for Two,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” only the latter moving faster than the slow walk they held throughout the set. Charlap offered the second set’s other change of pace, bravely singing a verse and chorus of “Cactus Time in Arizona” before handing it over to his mother with evident relief and an emphatic shove of the mic away from his face. “Changes” closed the set in an uptempo move that seemed a bit incongruous given Stewart’s ballad mastery, even with Charlap ripping into a spunky stride piano solo. But she was at her cozy and comfortable best in “Love Is Here to Stay.”
What a sweet and strong duo Charlap and Stewart have become, moving together through such great music with calm confidence, like a single musical mind.