Festive though it was, NPR's "A Jazz Piano Christmas" at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday night began with a poignant blue note. Renee Rosnes paid tribute to saxophonist and jazz titan James Moody, her friend and mentor, who died last week at age 85.
Perhaps some listeners were unfamiliar with the saxophonist's remarkable career and irrepressible spirit. But it's hard to imagine anyone failing to appreciate Rosnes's sense of loss - she first collaborated with the saxophonist over 20 years ago - or how fitting it was to have her open the evening.
No stranger to this annual keyboard summit, Rosnes knew the drill. Each of the four accomplished jazz pianists participating in the concert were allotted just enough time to revisit - and perhaps reimagine - a few holiday favorites. Rosnes's selections weren't surprising, but her solo arrangements, whether soulful or spirited, were colorfully inventive. After displaying her harmonic subtlety and sophistication - along with characteristic attention to silence and space - she brightened the mood with her wonderfully animated take on "Sleigh Ride," a dashing-through-the-snow delight.
Next up was Kenny Barron, who never fails to win over Kennedy Center audiences with his deftly reharmonized arrangements of familiar themes. Throughout the set, his right hand spun melodic variations that generated a charm and momentum of their own before elegantly resolving with a little flourish or a series of resonating chords. Then again, listening to Barron's formidable left hand was no small treat, either - especially when it was conjuring the heyday of boogie-woogie pianists or helping create orchestral designs and textures. Barron was followed onstage by Brazilian native Helio Alves. During his Kennedy Center debut, Alves made the most of his nimble virtuosity, but particularly enjoyable was the Carnival-inspired "Boas Festas," a sunny and jubilant import set to a marching beat.
Not surprisingly, Freddy Cole's arrival was greeted by a long and vibrant ovation. The 79-year-old vocalist-pianist (and recent Grammy nominee) was in typically relaxed and urbane form. Like his older sibling Nat King Cole, he always brings warmth and a seemingly effortless musicality to everything he performs. Sure, his baritone has lost some of its power and depth, but Cole is more resourceful - and arguably more soulful - than ever. So much so, in fact, that he had no problem making the unabashedly sentimental ballad "Old Days, Old Times, Old Friends" sound genuinely affecting.