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Saturday, December 6, 2008

NPR's 'Jazz Piano Christmas'

There's always a lot of traffic onstage during NPR's "A Jazz Piano Christmas," an annual event at the Kennedy Center recorded for later broadcast. But Thursday night's edition, a celebration of Afro-Caribbean traditions, might have set a record.

The late-show finale at the Terrace Theater found five musicians -- Angel Echevarria, Arturo O'Farrill, Rebeca Mauleon, Eliane Elias and Ellis Marsalis -- lined up at the same piano, each ready to put a spin on "Jingle Bells." Alternately propelled by clave, boogie-woogie and bossa-nova influences -- plus left-hand patterns that ranged from hammered vamps to light-fingered stride piano inflections -- the performance capped the concert on a delightfully spirited note.

Then again, the show was enlivened by harmonically fresh and rhythmically vibrant performances. Not surprisingly, O'Farrill, a renowned bandleader and arranger, brought an orchestral sweep and a keen sense of dynamics to "O Tannenbaum" and "Abrame la Puerta." Echevarria, a gifted 19-year-old musician, revealed his salsa roots and percussive attack during "Blue Bossa" and "Mi Burrito Sabanero." Mauleon moved with ease and invention from a rhapsodic interpretation of "La Comparsa" to the resounding crowd-pleaser "Linus and Lucy." Elias elegantly saluted the late pianist Bill Evans with "I Love My Wife," then recruited bassist Marc Johnson for a rendition of "Sleigh Bells" that was as cheerful as it was imaginatively recast.

Finally, Marsalis, the New Orleans family patriarch, joked that all the tunes he planned to perform were already taken. Yet his ingenious deconstructions of "Silent Night" and "Winter Wonderland" were worth savoring.

-- Mike Joyce

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

For many concertgoers, Handel's "Messiah" is the most sacred of rituals. But sacred can have more than one interpretation, as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Morgan State University Choir proved Thursday night with "Too Hot to Handel: The Gospel Messiah" at Meyerhoff Hall. Although untraditional, this rendition was as spiritual and exultant as any.

The 16-year-old brainchild of BSO Music Director Marin Alsop -- and co-arranged by Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson -- this "Messiah" reimagines Handel with flavors of jazz, blues and R&B. Although a few numbers are left out, the update is respectful (everything is recognizable, the trumpet still sounds) and it makes sense. A drum backbeat and an ostinato don't serve dissimilar functions; pop riffs and jazz improv can be considered contemporary equivalents of baroque ornamentation.

Joining the fine chorus were a Hammond B3 organ (played by Christianson), wailing saxophone, virtuosic piano solos and, most important, bona fide powerhouse vocalists. Lyric tenor (and scat singer) Thomas Young, mezzo-soprano Vaneese Thomas and soprano Rozz Morehead belted out familiar selections such as "Rejoice greatly" and "Comfort ye," stretching their voices to their limits while maintaining care and attention to detail.

The BSO's role was supporting, but Alsop was clearly at home, egging the choir and soloists on and galvanizing excitement. Audience members were out of their seats -- and not just for the "Hallelujah" chorus -- clapping hands above their heads and bouncing to the rhythms.

But for all its strengths, this "Messiah" is no substitute for the original. The solution? Indulge a little fat-free holiday gluttony and see both.

The concert will be repeated at 11 a.m. today at Meyerhoff Hall.

-- Ronni Reich

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