Stanley Cowell tops an engaging ‘Jazz Piano Christmas’

December 8, 2013

Was jazz pianist Sullivan Fortner second-guessing his career choice when he stepped onstage Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater? If so, one could hardly blame him.

The 26-year-old New Orleans native had the daunting task of following veteran virtuoso Stanley Cowell, who opened NPR’s “A Jazz Piano Christmas” concert with an audaciously arranged collection of holiday tunes. The long-running annual event has often saved the best for last, but after Cowell concluded and acknowledged what proved to be the evening’s loudest ovation, it was a safe bet that the remainder of the program would be anti-climactic.

And indeed that turned out to be the case, though certainly the ensuing solo performances by Fortner and fellow pianists Michelle Rosewoman and Andy Bey were enjoyable in their own right. Of the four musicians, only Cowell crafted a medley, one that offered wonderfully reimagined and reharmonized versions of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “We Three Kings.”

Listening to him, it’s always easy to become fascinated by the sound of two hands improvising independently, the right swift and fluid, the left vigorous and contrapuntal. At times Cowell conjured the golden age of Harlem “ticklers” or flashed Art Tatum-like flourishes amid evocative blues riffs and gospel chords. And yet his sophisticated sense of harmony was consistently fresh, inventive and surprising. Particularly engaging was his performance of “Little Town,” a piece composed by saxophonist Jimmy Heath and inspired by “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Vividly underscoring Heath’s bebop roots by emphasizing wide intervals and jarring dissonances, Cowell’s interpretation was every bit as hip, or as hep, as Dizzy Gillespie’s beret.

Intimidated or not, Fortner displayed almost as much poise as promise during his brief appearance. The pieces he chose — “Frosty the Snowman” and “A Child Is Born” — triggered sharply contrasting moods, rhythmically kinetic and spiritually yearning. Rosewoman also played two tunes, soulful recitals for piano and voice. Contemporary R&B ballads benefited from her haunting lyricism, but ultimately the performance only hinted at the breadth of the repertoire that Rosewoman has developed over the past 30 years. A spacious showcase at the venue seems overdue.

Ever the crowd-pleaser, Bey closed out the evening in singular fashion with delightfully offhand performances of “My Favorite Things” and other chestnuts. The recently Grammy-nominated veteran relied on a lyric sheet to refresh his memory at times — “Christmas isn’t every day,” he quipped. But that didn’t prevent him from creating an air of whimsical spontaneity, whether relying on his unmistakable, bop-bred baritone or on his spare, quirky accompaniments. Considering all the talent assembled, however, it’s a pity the concert didn’t end on a joyously collaborative note. Maybe next year.

Joyce is a freelance writer.

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