Although heard many times, many ways, the seasonal favorites lighting up NPR’s “A Jazz Piano Christmas” at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday night were freshly and sometimes ingeniously displayed. Of course, one might have expected as much, given a lineup that included jazz greats Barry Harris and Eddie Palmieri, but few could have anticipated the opening set by the young Cuban-born pianist Alfredo Rodriguez.
A protege of Quincy Jones, Rodriguez approached “Silent Night” as if he were assembling scattered fragments of the melody with his right hand, trying this and that configuration, while maintaining a resonant pedal tone with his left. Eventually, piece by piece, the melody came together, but not before the imaginative, pointillistic arrangement created pin-drop silence in the hall. Then, displaying percussive might and harmonic wit, Rodriguez loosed a chord-crashing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” that would have stopped mall shoppers in their tracks.
Next up was Harris, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, who turns 82 this week. His was such an engaging set that it scarcely mattered when he flubbed a chord or a lyric. Indeed, his take on “The Christmas Song” couldn’t have been more warmly off-the-cuff if he were playing it at home for a few friends, casually offering a cheerful amusement. When his right hand triggered trumpeting riffs during “White Christmas,” however, Harris’s bop roots and devotion came into sharp focus. All that was missing was a birthday cake.
There was little time for anecdotes, but Palmieri recalled the ’50s heyday of Latin music at Manhattan’s storied Palladium Ballroom, where the excitement, at least for musicians, was tempered only by long hours and poor wages. His performance, although all too brief, revealed full command of the keyboard, with the emphasis shifting from rhapsodic reharmonization to densely percussive drive to bluesy tremolos. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was a sparkling delight.
Jason Moran, who recently succeeded the late Billy Taylor as the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, closed the early show with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” The former certainly possessed a singing, soulful quality, its melody deftly sustained and amplified. “Mountain” offered a dramatic contrast, ringing with robust harmonies and animated by the kind of strong, restless left hand that Taylor admired and emulated. No doubt he would have approved.
The concert was taped for a future NPR broadcast.