Pianist Jim Brickman Talks About Why His Music is So Well-Suited to the Holidays

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When pianist Jim Brickman moved to Los Angeles in the '90s, he tried to get signed to a record label. Given that he’s an instrumentalist, it wasn’t easy.

“The most common reaction would be, ‘There’s no singing or anything? There’s no rhythm section? There’s just piano? It’s just you?’" he says via phone from a Grand Rapids tour stop. “That still happens in my live performances. I often have to explain that it’s just me.”

For Brickman, who performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 16, at the State Theatre, the holidays tend to be a busy time of the year. A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he says he was “a little bit of a black sheep,” Brickman released his first Christmas album some 20 years ago. He’s issued Christmas albums and put together holiday-themed tours ever since.

“The music by nature is of an emotional quality,” he says when asked about what first made him embrace the format. “It tends to be celebrated quite often during high emotional times like weddings and the birth of a child and Valentine’s Day. It really lends itself to the emotional connection with the nostalgia of Christmas. Because it’s instrumental, up until that point, you wouldn’t hear solo piano versions of something like ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’ or ‘Silent Night.’ These songs are so oversaturated with the numbers of the Christmas song, when someone tries to cover it as a vocal, there are only so many ways to do it. Beyond that, it’s always compared to the definitive. It’s never so unique. If it’s too different, it doesn’t sound like the song, and if it’s too much the same, why bother covering it.”

Brickman's latest endeavor, A Joyful Christmas, shows off his range. The album commences with the meditative piano number, “Celebration,” before giving way to the gospel-tinged “Hallelujah, I Believe,” a tune that features soulful vocals courtesy of guest Leslie Odom. the contemplative “The Magic of Christmas” recalls George Winston, a guy who released a number of Christmas albums during a lengthy career that dates back to the ‘70s.

Other guests include the rock act Five for Fighting and veteran actor/singer Dick Van Dyke.

“One of the things that’s happened over time is that there’s lots of original songs,” says Brickman. “As a songwriter, which is what I think of myself as more than a pianist, I started to write songs that are their own contemporary Christmas classics. There’s always a portion of original music. ‘Hallelujah’ is original. It’s an anthem made for choirs. That’s made for them. 'Christmas Where You Are' is a tribute for the troops. That’s the Five For Fighting duet. The aim is to be eclectic as possible and give as much variety as possible while keeping the through-line being my version. There’s a consistency in the tone but a variance of energy and emotional moments. I love the idea of having Dick Van Dyke on the same album as Five for Fighting. You can still play it while you’re trimming the tree. Especially in a playlist world, it acts that way in some fashion.”

“We’re Goin’ Caroling,” the jazzy tune that features Van Dyke, has a real swagger to it. Brickman says it was a real thrill to collaborate with someone he’s admired for years.

“The first movie I had ever went to, my grandmother took me to Mary Poppins and I was enthralled,” says Brickman. “It had an impact with the music and joy and just the energy of it. I was so enamored with Dick Van Dyke. I told my mom that I wanted to call him on the phone and tell him how much I liked his performance. My mom said I couldn’t. When I met him, I told him it only took me 50 years to get his number. It’s the only kind of song he could sing and have it be like that. It has to be nostalgic. Dick is 92. He sounds like he hasn’t aged at all. It was a perfect talk/singing song for him.”

Brickman admits it’s a challenge to keep his Christmas tours fresh and exciting.

“If you have a handful of hits that people want to hear, then some of it will be the same because the songs are the same,” says Brickman, who's dubbed his current tour A Joyful Christmas. “People want to hear the hits. There’s a certain aspect that requires you play certain songs. The tone and the concepts are how you do it. For example, I take a direction from what I feel like is needed in live entertainment. A few years ago, the tour was called On a Winter’s Night. It felt like a time that was more reflective, and people were talking about the meaning of Christmas. This year, what’s missing is joy and happiness and fun and escape. I want the tone to be light-hearted and joyful. I don’t want anybody to think about anything. I want people to come and laugh and have fun and escape the chaos of the holiday season. Hopefully, it’s the antidote the chaos.”

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