Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express
There was a time, seemingly long ago when viewed from today, that Chuck Prophet made it through town on an annual basis. From the time his 1999 career-defining album “The Hurting Business” kicked off a string of visits at the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club, up through a 2012 show at Cosmic Charlie’s (then housed in the same Woodland Avenue digs at Lynagh’s) promoting “Temple Beautiful,” Prophet could be counted on to deliver prime rock performances full of intuitive drive, with songs rich in emotive and stylistic depth. Unfortunately, not all those shows packed the room (although a 2010 solo acoustic outing at Natasha’s did). That meant either promoters, Prophet or both decided that routing his tour stops northward from Lexington to the greater Cincinnati area would ensure a heartier audience turnout.
That has proven to be Lexington’s loss. Prophet has released two extraordinary albums since his last local visit: 2014’s “Night Surfer” and 2017’s “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins.” Sadly, he will again bypass us on his current tour, but he will be within driving distance Friday night for a performance at the Southgate House Revival in Newport.
On stage, Prophet and his long-running Mission Express band design programs full of the kind of immediacy that propels a punk show. But Prophet’s heart is more in pop, as witnessed by his 2002 radio hit “Summertime Thing,” or the sly, elemental groove of “You Did,” a track from 2004’s “Age of Miracles” album that Prophet has bolstered with Neil Young-inspired guitar torrents in performance. That only seemed to enhance the vintage-style verses that stoically ran through the tune, like a mantra (“Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?”).
“Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins” suggests further enhancement of the pop promise of Prophet’s current shows. The title tune, which was used to open a string of February concerts in England, Germany and the Netherlands, references the champion pop star who died mysteriously in 1966 at age 23. The melody is driven with a pop charge that purposely recalls Fuller’s best known hit, “I Fought the Law,” to create a mood that is darkly nostalgic.
Interestingly, Prophet has been using one of Fuller’s less obvious hits, “Let Her Dance,” as an encore during his European run, along with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Ramona Says Yes” (again, this was in February, a month before the rock icon’s passing last weekend) and Leonard Cohen’s “Iodine.”
Does all this merit a road trip to Newport? Of course. And if you go, tell someone in Prophet’s entourage that Lexington misses him something fierce.
It’s a debatable claim, because jazz has always been blessed with a bumper crop of superlative pianists, but it’s hard to imagine a piano stylist other than Bill Charlap whose moment is so completely now.
A lifelong New Yorker, Charlap took home a Grammy last year, curiously, for Best Traditional Pop Album for “The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern.” The record was a collaboration with another giant whose career has been rooted in jazz but recognized as pop: Tony Bennett. A sparse, gorgeously intimate work, “The Silver Lining” sported only Charlap’s working trio of two decades — bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, as well as wife and fellow pianist Renee Rosnes. The magic, though, was supplied by the subtle lyricism of Charlap, whose playing on the record was compared in favorable terms by critics to the work of another vanguard jazz pianist Bennett collaborated with 40 years earlier, Bill Evans.
Now we have “Notes from New York,” an album by the long-running Charlap trio, which earned a five-star review from Downbeat magazine. Critic Allen Morrison lauded the recording as “a master class in, well, class.” But all you need to be convinced is a listen to Charlap’s elegiac and unaccompanied version of “On the Sunny Side of Street,” which closes the record. Played with slow but loving elegance, it presents the standard not in its usual percolating form but as a gorgeous meditation.
Now here is the great news: Charlap is in the region for a Sunday afternoon concert at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Removed as he is from New York, audiences in the area may be unfamiliar with his music. Trust me. This jazz outing cannot come more recommended.
A few Lexington jazz fans might recognize the name, though. Charlap performed at the Singletary Center for the Arts in 2009 as band leader of the Blue Note 7, an all-star ensemble designed to celebrate the music of Blue Note Records on what was then the label’s 60th anniversary.