Monday, December 11, 2006

'A Jazz Piano Christmas'

On Friday, National Public Radio's 17th annual "A Jazz Piano Christmas" concert brought six dynamite pianists (plus one notable singer) to the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater to perform two numbers each. The result, taped for later broadcast, wasn't as satisfying as an entire set from any of these artists would have been, but was an evening with varied pleasures.

Surprisingly, "Winter Wonderland" received not one but two problematic renditions. Teenage Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan noodled through a repetitive, generic version; later, vocalist Nancy King set out in a different key from pianist Geoffrey Keezer before settling into a jaunty stroll. But King and Keezer followed with a rapt, imaginative "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," featuring somber scatting from King, and Hamasyan's "Christmas Tale" captured his memories of holidays in his home country with inward melodies and gentle, sparkling pianism.

Eric Reed brought the ringing chords of gospel piano to a rip-roaring "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and treated "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" to some truly stunning virtuoso elaborations. Brazilian composer Assis Valente's "Boas Festas" glittered under the hands of his countryman Jovino Santos Neto.

Two old lions of jazz closed the show. Hard-bop stalwart Cedar Walton masterfully improvised on "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful." New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint made "The Little Drummer Boy" stride hard and found an unexpected eloquence in Kenny Rogers's "Christmas in America," as Toussaint's honeyed voice and delectable pianism created a warm, intimate send-off.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Washington Revels

The days are getting shorter and darker, and now come the Washington Revels to remind us, with traditional celebrations of the winter solstice, that the sun will indeed reappear and once again light up the world. This year's Revels are focusing their considerable energies on traditions of the Eastern United States in the early 19th century, and if the show seems overly inclusive (with nods to Native Americans, Puritans, Shakers, Moravians, Jews, mountain folk and slaves, and an apologetic mention in the program that Latinos will get their turn), it is still wonderful fun.

This is not a tidy, polite celebration. The stage is always crowded with instrumentalists, large groups of volunteer singers, dancers and the odd bit of set here and there. There are dancing and buffoonery and even bathroom humor (this year it's a "horse" -- two boys under a blanket -- that poops onstage). At Lisner Auditorium on Friday it was the children who stole the show. There were two groups -- a chorus of little ones and one of teenagers -- in many of the 47 scenes, singing, dancing or acting, and they were terrific at all of this. Their timing was smooth and confident (director Roberta Gasbarre runs things well) and they exuded joy in everything they did.

This year's production features powerful Native American storyteller Dovie Thomason, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon (who spin tales, call square dances and sing), fiddlers, a brass group and the Jonkonnu singers and dancers, whose stomping and drumming recalled a moment of cheer in the hard lives of North Carolina slaves.

There was a mummers' play, some singalong carols, and the chance to shout "Welcome Yule" together and, of course, to dance out at intermission singing "Lord of the Dance," led by baritone (and Revels executive director) Greg Lewis. The traditional sword dance was missed, but the makeover of a whip-snapping "Belsnickel" into a jolly St. Nick while "The Night Before Christmas" was being read was a great compensation.

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