‘NPR’s A Jazz Piano Christmas’ at The Kennedy Center


There are many types of applause one hears in a concert hall—polite clapping, raucous applause, the awkward slow clap. Felix Contreras, the host of last night’s cheerful NPR’s A Jazz Piano Christmas, asked the audience to demonstrate three different kinds of applause to be used for the live broadcast.  The concert-goers demonstrated ecstatic cheer with pizzazz, reverential and introspective clapping, and then quiet applause—but not too quiet! Four phenomenal musicians, Lynne Arriale, Kris Davis, Cyrus Chestnut, and Harold Mabern, demonstrated their own unique brands of jazz piano performance by playing their holiday favorites.

Contreras is a co-host of NPR’s podcast Alt.Latino, and he was a charming host for the evening. The hall was decked with projected snowflakes and bells, and a beautiful Steinway and little tree adorned the stage. What was especially interesting about the performance, was that it was conducted as if it was a live radio show. Contraras narrated the evening, sometimes fumbling over his script and having to repeat his lines (they’d be edited later), but it was all relaxed and in good fun.

Lynne Arriale kicked off the evening with a beautifully twisted and minor “Silent Night.” The carol morphed into its traditional tonality as she continued to play, but it was much more than your standard “Silent Night.” Arriale played with such tenderness and beauty that it seemed as if she were singing her baby to sleep on stage. The jazz pianist and composer, who is current Associate Professor of Jazz Studies and Director of Small Ensembles at The University of North Florida, next upped the tempo with a bubbly and spunky “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Her interpretation of the holiday favorite was as glittery as a Christmas ornament.

Kris Davis. Photo by Peter Gannushkin - downtownmusic.net.
Kris Davis. Photo by Peter Gannushkin – downtownmusic.net.

Next, Kris Davis started her set with a flurry of notes in “Toyland.” The up-and-coming Vancouver-born pianist/composer’s inspiration to perform this piece was a music box her parents bought in her Disney World years ago on vacation. It was a mesmerizing and dissonant interpretation of the classic, full of her stylistic and technical acumen. Davis also played her version of “O Tennanbaum.” She took a scenic route to unfold the melody, and even then, the audience was only granted a few measures of the full tune before she continued with her variations on the theme.

Local favorite Cyrus Chestnut was a welcome contrast, playing Charlie Brown favorites by Vince Guaraldi. Chestnut started with a groovy “Skating,” at times expanding over the bass before scurrying back over the treble keys.

Cyrus Chestnut. Photo courtesy of DL Media.
Cyrus Chestnut. Photo courtesy of DL Media.

Next was “Christmas Time is Here.” The soulful pianist moved with the melody and pleasantly sank into the keys when he wasn’t improvising little snowflakes falling on the upper notes. Chestnut finished his set with the classic “Linus and Lucy.” His playing was big, loud, and spirited, and the audience clearly enjoyed it.

Last, but definitely not least, jazz legend Harold Mabern started his set with his favorite Christmas song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It was sprightly and smooth, joyful and warm. The hard bop, post-bob, and soul jazz pianist has six decades of performing experience and 20+ albums in his pocket, and he could’ve coaxed the warm and fuzzies from a paper bag.

Harold Malbern.
Harold Mabern.

He also played “Grown Up Christmas List” and his favorite Christmas carol from his boyhood, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” He first played a verse and refrain of the traditional melody to demonstrate, and then promptly broke it down into a rocking, funky, and exciting swing.

The evening of good cheer concluded with a round robin of “Jingle Bells,” where each musician took over improvising “Jingle Bells” while the others faded out their tunes. It was a great way to end the evening!

NPR’s A Jazz Piano Christmas played one night only, Friday, December 12, 2014, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For future Kennedy Center performances, go to their calendar of events.


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