Ran Blake – photo by Will Panich

With classical and jazz pianists playing in all configurations and styles, this festival is always unique. Gilmore Artist Kirill Gerstein, with the Kalamazoo Symphony in tow, kicked up a storm playing Beethoven and Shostakovich concertos in Kalamazoo’s stately Chenery Auditorium. And yet, it was his satisfying and, no doubt, personally rewarding duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton that held sway. His mentor at Berklee College when Gerstein was a fresh recruit from 1990s Russia, Burton served as the perfect complement.

The dynamism of the classic Chick Corea/Gary Burton pairing was recalled as they performed Corea’s commissioned “The Visitors.” This novel blend of classical and jazz elements at times evoked Corea’s famous, lively “Senor Mouse,” a staple of the Corea/Burton repertoire. Gerstein and Burton closed the 2012 festival with a tender, conversational rendition of the Oscar Levant standard “Blame It On My Youth.”

Another commissioned work by Gerstein was performed earlier in the week. Brad Mehldau’s solo-piano piece “Variations On A Melancholy Theme” was longer, Gerstein’s ruminative playing bluesy with classical overtones, with barely a nod to jazz or pop (did I hear traces of “Old Man River”?). Mehldau’s trio sets the following night at the Gilmore Jazz Club displayed much technique but little warmth or grit. Not so the playing of the Robert Glasper Experiment the previous week. With music from his new CD Black Radio, bassist Derrick Hodge, Casey Benjamin on vocoder/alto saxophone, and drummer Mark Colenburg joined keyboardist Glasper with fresh, funky doses of hip-hop that gave the jazz vibe a fitting uplift. There was a nuanced, very original take on Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” a energetic “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a boatload of tension and release with “Black Radio.” Glasper’s solo-piano musings veered between what sounded like Ravel’s Pavane For A Dead Princess along a full-blooded “Body And Soul.”

Best overall: the endearing, penetrating gaze of pianist Ran Blake. A tribute to Abbey Lincoln, the late Kalamazoo native and acclaimed singer, Blake’s Nothing But The Truth: Throw It Away song cycle offered trance-like interpretations of songs by Lincoln as well as some by those long associated with the singer, including Max Roach, Mal Waldron and R.B. Lynch. Yes, there were other note-worthies, among them Diana Krall, Pink Martini and Leif Ove Andsnes, but Blake’s simple, direct connection to another musical soul and former longtime friend reminded us of why we make and listen to music in the first place. At its best, as it was here, music is life itself.