While his talents have taken piano man Jim Brickman in myriad directions, onto the charts and to the audiences of gospel, country, jazz, pop and more, for many his name is synonymous with Christmas.
It makes sense, as his solo piano renditions of classic carols and original holiday fare are kind of ideal background music for dinner in December or a gift-wrapping session. Brickman recognizes that, and caters to it, and it's clearly struck a chord as he's released several Christmas collections to the delight of millions of record buyers.
"A lot of why my music is popular at holiday time is, you can put it on while you're trimming the tree, and it's like the soundtrack," Brickman tells the Inlander from his Cleveland home. "It's not obtrusive ... Sometimes, especially this year, people want a little bit of calm."
Brickman's also a hard-touring artist who, like so many, saw the pandemic throw a wrench in his plans for 2020. And while he's not able to do his annual holiday tour, Brickman has decided to play a series of "Comfort and Joy At Home" shows to support individual towns' theater and arts communities. One is slated for Spokane on Dec. 4, when Brickman will host a show via Zoom, raising money for the First Interstate Center for the Arts and giving Inland Northwest fans the chance to mingle with one another, and Brickman, from the comfort of their own homes. We talked with Brickman about his virtual tour, his life during the pandemic and more; the conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
INLANDER: What's your pandemic life been like? What got canceled, and what have you been working on?
BRICKMAN: In the summer, I usually tour in Europe and Asia. So that was definitely a little disappointing. But we've always been inventive. And I'm by nature optimistic. At least for me, creatively, it's presented an opportunity to write a little bit more, think a little bit more about what my after-pandemic life might be like, or what sort of creative pursuits. And it also presented some opportunities. I did, for the first time, an album with all Broadway stars, I had always wanted to do something with Broadway. And because all of these great performers have been, you know, not performing, they were able to record with me, and I did a big Christmas album, all for charity [The Actors Fund, a group dedicated to supporting workers in the performing arts].
Were you actually able to record together, or were you trading music files and working long-distance?
It was a combination, but I would say that, you know, a handful of people came into the studio. And it was just them on one side of the glass and me on the other, with all of the precautions. I think five of them, and the rest did it at home. But, you know, performances that I never would have been able to do with artists, Tony-winning artists, in everything from Hamilton to The King and I, and people like Kelli O'Hara, Leslie Odom Jr., and, you know, Megan Hilty. Broadway, it's kind of its own world. The talent is just... it's like nothing I've ever seen before, and I've worked with a lot of pop artists, country artists.
Your tour is helping a lot of individual theaters around the country. Why was that important to you?
Places like First Interstate [Center for the Arts] or the quote-unquote "Broadway houses" that bring in Wicked or A Chorus Line, they're devastated because Broadway is such an income-producing opportunity. They're really devastated ... The other problem is not just for performers like me, but for crew, lighting, sound, box office, stage hands. For headliners, it's not as bad. It's the support crews where it really is challenging. And, of course, the buildings, depending on if they're city-owned or privately funded. What we're doing is completely unique, because we're doing it by city and by community. So it's just for our friends in Spokane and for the First Interstate Center, and to come together as a community to give money back to the arts community in Spokane and the theater.
"The other problem is not just for performers like me, but for crew, lighting, sound, box office, stage hands."
Why did you decide to do a bunch of shows for a bunch of different towns instead of one big online fundraiser?
I used the model in my mind of what we would normally be doing, and we'd be touring in all these markets. I would already be in a different city every night. And because we're doing this as a Zoom Room and not as a passive stream, it presents a much more intimate, as-close-as-possible quality to the interactive experience that a live show does in a town. You can be more specific about the people you're talking to where you are, whether it is something as simple as the weather or something specific to the theater itself and what it's like to see a show there. I think that's really important. Much more so than 'OK, one night from Lincoln Center!' Anybody can watch that anytime on YouTube. [At the Comfort and Joy At Home shows] you can interact, so I'll be seeing you and you'll be seeing me, and in addition to the Zoom Room there's also a meet and greet opportunity. And for every ["gold" and "diamond"-level] ticket that that is sold, we send you a Christmas stocking that's all kinds of goodies, it arrives on your doorstep the week prior to the concert, with a music CD and chocolate and jingle bells, a program to the show like you were in the lobby, a ticket to get into the show, singalong lyrics for a singalong that we're doing. We're trying our best to make it as close to the [normal] live experience as possible.
You've had a lot of success with Christmas music. What is it about a song that resonates with you, or makes you want to record some classic?
When I do covers — because, you know, I write a lot of holiday songs — but when it's a cover, one thing that I feel like I can do that not a lot of people can is, most of them are solo piano. And that's what I do. And you don't hear a lot of that. So what you get when you play a solo piano version of "Silent Night" or "The Christmas Song" or whatever it is, you get the essence of it without any sort of comparison to the iconic, definitive version of it ... There's no reason to re-record the vocals of "White Christmas" — Crosby, that's definitive. But when you do it as an instrumental, it takes on a different quality, because it's familiar. And it's peaceful, There's something very comfortable about hearing it in that context. ♦
Jim Brickman: Spokane At Home for the First Interstate Center for the Arts • Fri, Dec. 4, at 7:30 pm • $40 concert/$75 includes concert, meet-and-greet and gift stocking/$125 includes concert, meet-and-greet, gift stocking and post-show party • jimbrickman.com/spokane for tickets and more information