A public radio holiday tradition returns: It's NPR Music's A Jazz Piano Christmas, the annual celebration of seasonal music in swing time.
Every year, NPR invites a handful of great jazz keyboardists to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. They take turns playing their unique renditions of holiday classics for live audiences, and the results are collected for this special program, hosted on stage by NPR's Felix Contreras.
Four pianists were on this year's date, the 21st such event:
Renee Rosnes epitomizes the idea of, "Who you hang out with says a lot about who you are." Shortly after moving to New York in 1985, she landed a gig with Joe Henderson, as well as other opportunities with Wayne Shorter and J.J. Johnson. She's also married to pianist Bill Charlap, but she's become an accomplished bandleader in her own right; at this performance, she unveiled detailed, rich arrangements of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "Sleigh Ride."
Kenny Barron was last heard on A Jazz Piano Christmas in 2004. But he's been heard on fantastic records for 50 years now — in constant demand that entire time — a distinction that led him to be named an NEA Jazz Master in 2009. In "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "O Tannenbaum," he issued impeccable swing that looked effortless, but was deeply seated in decades of practice and gigging.
Helio Alves has been based in the U.S. for decades now. But the only thing "white" about his Christmases as a boy growing up south of the equator was the sand on the beaches. He demonstrates the close relationship between Brazilian music and jazz in "White Christmas," and in a traditional Brazilian holiday tune called "Boas Festas."
There's an unofficial tradition brewing at A Jazz Piano Christmas: Just about every year, at least one of the artists seems to be nominated for a Grammy just weeks before taking the stage. This year, it was Freddy Cole, whose Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B paid tribute to Billy Eckstine. (He also appeared on Issac Delgado's 2010 album L-O-V-E, a Spanish-language tribute to Freddy's brother, Nat King Cole.) Singing and playing piano, he delivered "A Cradle in Bethlehem," "Blue Christmas" and "Old Days, Old Times and Old Friends."
The program ends with another Jazz Piano Christmas tradition: the round-robin version of "Jingle Bells," with everyone taking a turn on the tune.