A Jazz Piano Christmas: Live last night

eldarTwenty-two year old pianist Eldar provided an unexpected opening at NPR's annual "A Jazz Piano Christmas" Friday at the Kennedy Center.

Live Last Night

By Mike Joyce

The holiday jazz piano summit at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Friday night was supposed to kick off with Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." Apparently 22-year-old phenom Eldar didn't get the word.

Instead of entertaining thoughts of "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," the late show audience was treated to Eldar's "Exposition." Vibrant and challenging, the piece displayed the pianist's extraordinary technique and occasionally brought to mind his ties to Oscar Peterson's legacy. Hummable, however, it wasn't.

(A parade of piano stars, after the jump.)

Taped for later broadcast, NPR's annual "A Jazz Piano Christmas" proved more spiritual and soulful than cheery. In addition to Eldar, Billy Taylor, Patricia Barber, Robert Glasper, Joe Sample and Ramsey Lewis participated, in solo and duo settings.

Though Barber has the harmonic ingenuity and rhythmic prowess to freshen any standard, she didn't miss the opportunity to move beyond seasonal favorites. "The New Year's Eve Song," an original ballad inspired by Cole Porter, produced a haunting interlude, perhaps all the more so because the arrangement, unlike the recorded version, was pared to voice and piano.

Like Barber, Glasper has an idiosyncratic style and eclectic tastes. (He arrived in town shortly after performing with Maxwell on the "Today Show.") Inspired by Thad Jones's "A Child Is Born," he contrasted spacious lyricism with knotty motifs and improvised sprints during a 15-minute performance that seemed half as long.

Lewis, looking as elegant as ever, went straight to church for inspiration. His deeply affecting rendition of John Coltrane's "Dear Lord" created a pin-drop silence in the house. Former Jazz Crusader Sample contributed newly arranged renditions of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Little Drummer Boy." Fresh and whimsical, both interpretations revealed the pianist's flair for reharmonization.

As for Taylor, he was in typically melodic form during two duets that were by far the evening's most heartwarming performances. He first teamed up with protege Eldar, who managed to learn a Taylor composition by ear just prior to the concert. He complemented Taylor's lyrical touch, then deftly embellished the theme when the opportunity arose.

Even more welcome was the pairing of Taylor and Lewis. The two NEA Jazz Masters quickly fell in sync, exchanging resounding chords, fluid lines and orchestral surges during a duet that exuded good cheer and unmistakable camaraderie. Unlike some previous summits, however, this one didn't include a festive coda featuring all the pianists in rotation - a finale worth reprising.

By David Malitz |  December 14, 2009; 8:31 AM ET Live Last Night
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