To celebrate the 300th anniversary of the piano, the Smithsonian Institution and Maryland Public TV collaborated to produce a public television special featuring a variety of pianists from the world of jazz, classical, and pop; this CD is the soundtrack to the program, which was recorded live. The eclectic mix of music begins and ends with Billy Joel, singing his ballad "Baby Grand" and his huge hit from the 1970s, "Piano Man." Although he is in great form, the house band backing him adds little to his performance, and at times keyboardist Adam Holtzman's volume threatens to drown out the leader. Jerry Lee Lewis is a great crowd-pleaser with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire," although these performances are hardly landmarks in the history of the piano. The Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra accompanies Robert Levin on the third Movement of Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto" and Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Grieg's "Concerto in A minor, 1st Movement"; both artists interpret these timeless classics brilliantly. Classical pianist Hyung-Ki Joo throws the audience a curve with a stunning arrangement of Billy Joel's "Fantasy (Film Noir)" that should validate Joel as a composer to those that automatically dismiss pop artists. Katia and Marielle Labeque's playful duo piano interpretation of Leonard Bernstein's "America" is delightful but all too brief. Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut's "Baroque Impressions" rekindles his formal classical lessons playing Bach as a child, though he segues quickly into a swinging improvised solo. Eliane Elias and Her Trio play her thunderous "The Time Is Now," a very percussive piece that incorporates elements of bop and samba. Singer/pianist Diana Krall and Her Trio are joined by the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra for an easygoing if uneventful rendition of "Let's Fall in Love." Dave Brubeck easily steals the show with a solo interpretation of a work he wrote while touring Europe in 1958, the Chopin-influenced "Thank You (Dziekuje); the 79-year-old pianist hushes the crowd with this dramatic yet melancholy composition. There are minor flaws within this CD. The lack of liner notes explaining that this is a soundtrack and, perhaps, why these artists were chosen to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the program would be very helpful. The editing is a little too tight in places, particularly when one hasn't had time to react to one piece before another artist is suddenly playing three to four seconds later. The good news is that both a VHS tape and a DVD are available, adding backstage interviews with some of the artists and additional music by Marcus Roberts, the Labeque Sisters, eight student pianists, and the show's finale of "Heart and Soul." While fans of Billy Joel or Jerry Lee Lewis might question buying this CD, jazz and classical listeners should have no problem justifying the acquisition of this phenomenal release.
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AllMusic Review by Ken Dryden