Jim Brickman rang in the holidays Saturday night at Playhouse Square when his 40-city “Magic of Christmas” tour rolled into Cleveland.
The family-friendly concert doubled as a homecoming party for Brickman, who brought a few friends to The Palace along with his baby grand. Singer Anne Cochran, guitarist Luke McMaster, and electric violin sensation Tracy Silverman helped the Shaker Heights native breathe new life into familiar Christmas favorites in between unaccompanied original classics by the piano phenom.
“If you’re lucky enough to have hits, you should play them,” said Brickman, who began tickling the ivories at age five.
The Cleveland Institute of Music alum didn’t disappoint, marching the near-capacity theatre through his twenty year catalog—stretching as far back as “Rocket to the Moon” (from 1994’s No Words) and “If You Believe” (from 1995’s By Heart). But the program was given to the spirit of the season, with Brickman cherry-picking “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Gloria In Excelsis Deo,” “We Three Kings” and other yuletide feel-gooders from the new disc (and prior Christmas CDs like All Is Calm and Homecoming).
The musical evening was peppered with storytelling and playful banter by Brickman and his cohorts, who seemed genuinely thrilled to be back in town—if only for the weekend. Despite his all-American good looks and squeaky-clean image, Brickman wasn’t above a little self-deprecating humor, downplaying his status as the premier “romantic piano sensation.” He joked about having his music on display in the greeting card and candle aisles at Target, cautioning people to be gentle when pushing his cardboard face to hear samples. He also kidded about stalking legendary crooner Johnny Mathis, whom he tapped to sing “Sending You a Little Christmas” on the 2003 disc, Peace.
Mathis so loved the he named his next album after it.
The Juilliard-trained Silverman joined Brickman on a medley that blended bits of “Greensleeves” and “Carol of the Bells,” but the New Yorker practically stole the spotlight by working in bits of Led Zeppelin (“Rock and Roll”) and Deep Purple (“Smoke on the Water”) on his six-string electric violin / guitar. The two musicians shared memories of being nerds in school who let music take them where they wanted to go. Brickman feigned surprise when the shaggy-haired Silverman stomped on a distortion pedal, adding some heavy metal to the pianist’s easy listening repertoire.
Cochran, a long-time Brickman collaborator, let her inimitable pipes to “Sending You a Little Christmas” and added visual appeal to the boy’s club with her movie star profile and elegant gowns. Winnipeg troubadour McMaster shared vocals with the sultry songbird on “When It Snows,” strumming an acoustic guitar (with a Stratocaster headstock), then teamed with Jim for “Good Morning, Beautiful” (from McMaster’s 2012 release All Roads). The four entertainers continued mixing it up in various configurations, but the guest stars allowed their headliner host to shine.
“We like having you accompany us, Jim!” teased Cochran.
The jam-packed medley of “Never Alone,” “Destiny,” “Greatest Gift of All,” “I’m Amazed,” and “Simple Things” showcased Cochrane’s range, McMaster’s down-home country twang, Silverman’s silky strings, and Brickman’s light touch. And any spoken reference to The Magic of Christmas was immediately followed by the flicker of fingers across a set of chimes hanging on Brickman’s left. The sound effect became a running gag that somehow never got old.
The light show was tasteful and unobtrusive, soaking the players in soft violet, indigo, and champagne hues. Latticework columns running along the backdrop evoked snowflakes, and LCD pinpricks of light suggested stars on a cold winter’s night. Brickman’s Yamaha was so well-polished that one could at times see its dampers and strings reflected on the underside of the instrument’s propped lid.
Following a brief intermission, Brickman (now clad in a red shirt instead of a white shirt with black tie) revisited Vince Guaraldi with “Christmas Time Is Here,” from the Peanut’s animated TV specials. The pianist said he always envied Schroeder, who seemed to enjoy playing music in his own little world rather than get caught up in Charlie Brown’s drama. The cartoon music then steered toward the House of Mouse, with Brickman peeling off a string of Disney and Sesame Street-related songs like “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” “Sing a Song,” “Rainbow Connection,” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.” He even sang a few measures in the voice of Kermit the Frog.
Brickman—who counts a weekly radio program among his many ventures—said he knew he “made it” when he phoned up a credit card company to check his balance and was subjected to his own music while on hold. He said his father was proud when another composition turned up as background music in a documentary about an NFL coach. The pianist honored his past by rendering both songs—“Dream Come True” and “Waterfall”—in their entireties before bringing his friends back out for a holiday finale. He also boasted bringing his separated parents back together by booking them in a single room on one of his annual music-themed cruises.
“So, your parents got back together because you’re cheap?” quipped Cochran.
“Actually, it was more like ‘Parent Trap,’” the pianist smiled.
McMaster led “Merry Christmas, Beautiful” and harmonized with Cochran on “Fa La La” while plucking a ukulele. They had a lovely duet with 1997 hit “The Gift” (sung on record by Collin Raye and Susan Ashton), and somehow managed to work Jackie Wilson’s R&B staple “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” into the arrangements. Brickman returned alone after final bows, sending everyone home happy with the warm-and-fuzzy standby “Angel Eyes.”
The show was relaxing but…well, joyful and triumphant. And the humble Brickman still makes playing piano look deceptively simple and effortless. The guy clearly gets into his music, swaying on the bench as his arms and hands dance over the keys, smiling with his eyes closed (but favoring the audience over his right shoulder). One got the impression Brickman would’ve been playing piano at home on this Saturday night anyway (perhaps on his trusty old upright) with or without all the critical and commercial success, just because he loves doing it. That kind of passion is infectious, and not so easily faked.
If you weren’t moved at some point by the good tunes cheer, the humbug’s on you.
Silverman will return to Cleveland next month for a solo gig at Beachland Ballroom. Tickets are on sale now at his website below, or at www.beachlandballroom.com .