NPR Swings into the Holidays with “A Jazz Piano Christmas”

New KenCen jazz artistic director Jason Moran joins NPR for the annual December favorite.
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Photograph courtesy of the Kennedy Center

This time of year, every venue in town seems to be filled with the sounds of holiday favorites. Problem is, apart from classical mainstays such as Handel’s Messiah or Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, holiday concerts often leave much to be desired. Yes, Christmas music is meant to spread seasonal cheer, but when put in the wrong context, the results usually range from saccharine to downright nauseating. That said, there are exceptions out there, one of which is “A Jazz Piano Christmas,” a perennial highlight of the Kennedy Center’s season. The event brings together world-class artists to reinterpret holiday songs in any way they see fit.

“Jazz musicians can play with the melody, or change a chord—that’s the nature of jazz,” says NPR’s Felix Contreras, who will be hosting this year’s concert on Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. “I’ve never heard any piece that was so sugary sweet you could barely listen.”

The roots of this event stretch back more than a decade. Initially, NPR would issue a CD of jazz masters playing holiday music that could be used by radio programmers across the country. Then it was decided that a live broadcast would be more appropriate, and an annual collaboration developed between NPR and the Kennedy Center. Contreras came onboard initially as a producer, but now his main duty is to host the event while Kennedy Center staffers curate the concert’s lineup.

“Every year, we have a different group of pianists. In every show, we have a mix of eras and styles,” says Contreras. “Usually, it’s like an insight into the whole canon of jazz.”

Saturday’s eclectic roster will include National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Barry Harris and the Latin fireworks of Eddie Palmieri, along with up-and-comer Alfredo Rodriguez.

This year’s show also takes on added significance, as it’ll be Jason Moran’s first performance at the venue since the Kennedy Center tapped him to take the place of the late, great Dr. Billy Taylor as artistic adviser for jazz. The 36-year-old pianist is a gifted player and composer who’s steeped in jazz tradition but equally dedicated to exploring the cutting edge. This combination of youth and experience should allow Moran to give the Kennedy Center’s jazz programming the proper balance of presenting innovative work and enhancing the music’s status as a great American art form.

Moran’s appointment has drawn universal praise, and Contreras agrees with the general consensus. “As a jazz fan, I think it’s a great move,” he says. “It’s a perfect selection based on where he is in his career, his sense of self, and his grasp on the history.”

While the torch has been passed to Moran, Dr. Taylor’s spirit still looms over the Kennedy Center. For example, several years ago, Taylor began a tradition of closing each Christmas concert with a performance of “Silent Night.” Inspired by the jam sessions of his youth, when it was a way for young musicians to challenge one another, each soloist will take turns on the piano, with one picking up where the last left off.

“I remember one year hearing [Dr. Taylor] play ‘Silent Night,’ and it was so emotional you could hear a pin drop,” Contreras recalls. “To be able to carry on that tradition that he loved . . . it’s what we live for as jazz fans.”

The Kennedy Center hosts NPR’s “A Jazz Piano Christmas” this Saturday, December 11. Tickets ($55) are available through the Kennedy Center’s web site.

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