Beth Lederman tucks into crowd-pleasing jazz for Christmas shoppers
John Cowan

There’s an almost secret society of true jazz artists gigging in and around the Phoenix area. Music preferences seem split into two groups there: rockers and a little bit of everybody else, leaning toward country-pop to eclectic, head-banging EDM for strict ravers.

Jazz gets short shrift, with very few consistent venues to choose from, which is why you’re likely to catch superlative straight-ahead/modern jazz in the strangest places: a Greek restaurant in Tempe, a shopping mall for the rich.

One of the best jazz musicians around is Beth Lederman, a keyboardist who prefers her tunes steeped in melody and mood. Most recently, she fronted an accidental quartet in a surprisingly well-received gig outside at the Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix.

Originally scheduled for six hours Nov. 26 in the courtyard with bassist Felix B. Sainz Jr. and saxophonists Mary Petrich and Ted Belledin, Lederman’s “Countdown to Christmas!” wound up as a slightly expanded jam session with two special guests from Seattle sitting in, newly transplanted drummer Ken French and visiting keyboardist Ed Weber.

As the melodic solos drifted out to more and more arrivals, curious shoppers paused or even literally stopped in their tracks to hear more of the Christmas-influenced covers, including crowd favorites, “Christmastime Is Here [A Charlie Brown Christmas, 2012]” and “My Favorite Things [‘Sound Of Music,’ 1965].”

Sainz (The Nearness Of You) kept time, respectful of the other musicians sitting in, careful not to overstep but ready with a frothy comeback on his upright.

Saxophonist Petrich (Murmuration with OpenHand) performed a few of the tunes without a net, matching jazz with an other-worldly folk classicism to her open-ended pitches.

Lederman, who has an adventurous jazz album out with Jazz con AlmaLas Sombras, favored melody with luscious, floral adaptations throughout the six-hour gig. At one point, two toddler boys diverted the spotlight somewhat by running around the makeshift grassy stage-before-a-stage, grooving to the instrumentals. Lederman offered one of them her sleigh bell to play. The audience of shoppers laughed as he tried to make off with it, jingling all the way.

Lederman attracts listeners like a moth to a flame, whether she’s playing a church, wedding, wine bar, or the next jam session, which is tonight, by the way, 7 p.m.-10 p.m. at a popular jazz hangout, Opa Life Greek Café in its Tempe location.

She hosts with bassist Sainz and drummer Tim Robinson.