National Public Radio's 16th annual edition of "A Jazz Piano Christmas," presented at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Friday night, hit a sour note before the curtain went up. Hank Jones, the renowned jazz elder, was no longer on the program due to what the venue's press office later called "a scheduling conflict."
Still, the capacity crowd was greeted by some welcome news: a surprise cameo by trombonist Slide Hampton and an appearance by Billy Taylor, who came out of retirement to help compensate for Jones's no-show and fill out a bill featuring fellow pianists Hilton Ruiz, Marcia Ball and Daniela Schachter.
What unfolded was a holiday celebration of contrasts and inventiveness, even more so than usual, thanks to the inspired pairing of percussionists Dave Samuels and Pete Escovedo. Playing a five-octave marimba, Samuels didn't collaborate with conguero Escovedo so much as converse with him when the duo imaginatively rearranged "Sleigh Bells."
Otherwise, the pianists set the pace and tone, each performing two selections. Schachter, who won the Mary Lou Williams Women Jazz Piano Competition in May, was teamed with Hampton on "Christmas Time Is Here." His warm lyricism and her softly pulsating, Erik Satie-like chords brought an impressionistic glow to the Vince Guaraldi tune.
While ingeniously devising variations on "We Three Kings," Ruiz revealed his Afro-Caribbean flair and proclivity for bop by blending dancing rhythms with sophisticated harmonies. Ball exuberantly lived up to her billing as the "Queen of Bayou Boogie," but her finest moment came when she fashioned a bittersweet rendition of "Christmas Time Down in New Orleans."
Then came Taylor, a jazz musician for all seasons. He was in fine form, particularly when revisiting "Merry Christmas," an original composition enlivened by some fanciful keyboard designs, including a left hand-only coda.
The concert ended with everyone taking turns performing "Silent Night," the pianists sliding one by one behind the keyboard, the percussionists nimbly reviving the carol in tandem, and Hampton soulfully chiming in at one point.
Though each performance was distinctive, none rang out as thunderously as Ruiz's gospel-inflected rendering or proved more haunting than Taylor's exquisitely shaded finale.
The concert, affably hosted by National Public Radio's Fred Child, was taped for later broadcast.