“Rags, Strides & Habaneras,” a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert, might have seemed miscellaneous. What do ragtime and stride piano, two early forms of jazz, have to do with the Cuban rhythm also known as the tango? And the lineup of performers only increased the sense of incongruity: four virtuoso pianists from different parts of the world, joined by three dancers — one tap, one salsa, one flamenco.
No wonder one of those pianists, the 90-year-old master Dick Hyman, confessed to being bewildered at the start of the early show on Friday. By the early show on Saturday, though, he was able to announce that he and his fellow artists had figured out what the title meant: What had been an enjoyable mess on Friday had by Saturday cohered into something more.
The programming was far from random. The habanera is a hybrid seed of great potency. An adaptation of the European contradanza by slaves from West Africa, it is not only an early version of a New World rhythm that took over the globe, but also a direct ancestor for much of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Ragtime and stride are part of the same African-diaspora tree, though on a different branch. And these dance rhythms call for dancers.
The concert touched on all this. You could sense history in the various dances of the pianists’ left hands: the slinky syncopations of habanera; the manic but metronomic bounce, in swing, as if between two trampolines. But the show wasn’t nearly selective enough for the history to be clear.
The format was a relay, with two pianos onstage. After one pianist played a few songs, another came on for a duet before embarking on his own set. Mr. Hyman, along with his high-finesse renditions of Scott Joplin ragtime and Fats Waller stride, dutifully inserted a tango bass line into “All the Things You Are.” Sullivan Fortner, from New Orleans, and Chano Domínguez, from Spain, both played habaneras beautifully. But why did Joey Alexander, the adorable and astonishingly skilled 15-year-old pianist from Indonesia, play original compositions with almost none of the three title elements?
Among the dancers, who joined in periodically, the outlier wasn’t the Spanish flamenco dancer, Jesús Carmona (in town for the Flamenco Festival at City Center), so much as the New York salsero, Eddie Torres Jr. In his ruffled shirts and sequined spangles, the friendly Mr. Torres, snapping his fingers and shimmying, simply didn’t have enough vocabulary