For fans of the performing arts the Kennedy Center Honors — a joyous celebration of the lifetime achievements of artists in music, dance, theater, film, comedy, and television — is a dependable post-Christmas gift.
The 36th annual edition, airing Sunday night at 9 on CBS, is no exception as honors are bestowed on a new quintet of legends: opera diva Martina Arroyo, virtuoso jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, Oscar-winning actress-singer-dancer Shirley MacLaine, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Billy Joel and Carlos Santana.
The night begins with a raucous tribute to Santana's genre-bending sound on tunes like "Oye Como Va" and "Black Magic Woman," featuring vocals from Fher Olvera of Mana, Juanes, and molten-lava guitar work from Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Buddy Guy's take on "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man" has Santana grinning from ear to ear, as do the team of Steve Winwood and Sheila E. on "Everybody's Everything."
Grins pop up repeatedly throughout the night on the faces of the honorees, those presenting the tributes, the star-studded audience members, and a grooving President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, seated with the honorees.
US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor seems downright giddy in her presentation to Arroyo, reminding the audience of the definition of diva. "As a derivative of an Italian word meaning 'goddess,' it was used sparingly to describe only those opera singers who took us to another world." Arroyo's journey from Harlem to the Met to mentoring young musicians is moving, as is the Verdi tribute by stars like Joseph Calleja and Sondra Radvanovsky and her own students.
In his remarks about Hancock, Bill O'Reilly is both funny — the Fox News host opens by quipping about the choice of him as presenter, "I know, I'm surprised too" — and eloquent, praising the hard work, creativity, and humanity at the heart of the revered pianist's catalog. "It's that embracing of what is good in mankind that infuses Herbie's music and makes him a national icon."
On hand to display the breadth of that catalog is a stunning array of musicians from the worlds of jazz and hip-hop — including Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Snoop Dogg, and Mix Master Mike — performing everything from "Watermelon Man" to "Rockit."
A quartet of fabulous broads from Broadway (and film and TV) — Sutton Foster, Anna Kendrick, Karen Olivo, and Patina Miller — hit the heights in their heartfelt tribute to MacLaine with tunes from "The Pajama Game," "Sweet Charity," and more. But the real stars of the MacLaine segment are the people who conceived — and then edited — her career video, which perfectly integrates the actress performing "I'm Still Here" with clips from her storied career.
The night concludes with the tribute to Joel, begun by Tony Bennett who calls his friend "no less than a poet, a performer, a philosopher of today's American Songbook," and naturally concluding with an audience singalong to "Piano Man" led by Rufus Wainwright, who also contributes a performance of the Long Islander's signature anthem "New York State of Mind." Don Henley of the Eagles offers a tender reading of "She's Got a Way," and in the night's most poignant moment, Garth Brooks is joined by a group of veterans on "Goodnight Saigon."
While some of these names may be unfamiliar to a segment of the audience tuning in for a specific artist, the beauty of the Kennedy Center Honors broadcast is its ability to make each branch of artistry accessible and, hopefully, entertaining for everyone, from diehard fans to newbies to a particular form. And that is an honorable intention indeed.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.