Jul 21, 2009
At the age of 91, pianist Marian McPartland shows no signs of slowing down. I spoke to her by telephone last week, and found that she was still composing, still practicing and still working on her radio show Piano Jazz, now in its 30th year on NPR. Podcast 155 is a portrait of the great piano player and her music.
From her days as a child prodigy in England, to her Trio's influencial long-term residency at the Embers (1950) and the Hickory House (1952-1960) to her current recording and radio schedule, Ms. McPartland has consistently been a dynamic pianist and personality. She still works primarily with a piano trio, a format she finds is a "comfortable way of playing. First you have the bass as one source of support, then the drummer as another...From there you can play different kind of things, whether straight ahead or playing something as a bossa nova or somethign else entirely."
Ms. Partland has a full schedule of guests for the summer on "Piano Jazz", a show that continues to grow in popularity. Crossover guests like Elvis Costello and Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker jump at the chance to spend an hour with her. She claims there are a few guests she still has never had; she would like to have Sonny Rollins ("He said he would; I just have to get him pinned down on a date.") and Stevie Wonder as guests before she's done with the show.
She credits her development of a feel for jazz to listening to teh great players of her childhood. "When I was in England there were the swing bands, and Benny Goodman had a great piano player in Teddy Wilson, so ther was always someone to listen to. Fats Waller, Art Tatum - these are all people who are forever engraved in my mind. I try to lsiten to new people of course, to try to keep up with what is new and different".
She urges serious jazz students to listen to as much jazz as they can, "play a lot, experiment with harmony, just try to play." She claims to have dozens of half finished compostiions on her piano, songs that she looks at from time to time to consdier compelting. "One or two of them are not so bad at all", she said with a laugh. An understatement if there ever was one.
Podcast 155 includes the following:
Marian McPartland - Title Track from Twilight World. Her latest album on Concord Records revisits her older compositions and some songs she never got around to recording by Ornette Coleman, John Lewis and Miles Davis.The songs "chose her", she claims, rather than the other way around. "Twilight World" was performed after its initial composition for Johnny Mercer, who asked Marian's permission to write a lyric for it. She was bowled over and delighted to collaborate. When Tony Bennett decided to record the song, she couldn't believe her good fortune.
The trio on this version is Ms. McPartland on piano, Gary Mazzaroppi on bass and Glenn Davis on drums. She dedicated the album to her late husband, Jimmy McPartland.
Marian McPartland - "Ambiance" from With Strings - Silent Pool. Marian took one of the compositions of which she is the proudest and had Alan Broadbent write string arrangements for this 1996 album. She said she wrote the song while spending the summer in Norman, Oklahoma, working with other jazz musicians on an education program. At the time she was listening to a lot of Herbie Hancock, and inspired by his harmonic palette, decided to write something that the students would enjoy performing in his style. After that, it all fell together and was very easy to complete.
Eden Atwood - "In the Days of Our Love" from There Again. Marian and I share a fondness for the singer Eden Atwood, who recorded this McPartland original with Marian sitting in. She credits singers with helping her approach material, whether classics or her originals. She finds that she concentrates on the lyrics or thinks of a singer's approach to lyrics when interpeting a song, and with that in mind, finds she can improvise in a manner that allows a deeper emotional connection with the listener. "A beautiful ballad certainly gives extra poignancy", she said, "Certainly if you know the lyric you can give the song more feeling."
Marian McPartland - "Lush Life" from Plays the Music of Billy Strayhorn. Among the composers she has paid tribute to with album long recordings are Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Alec Wilder and Strayhorn. I asked her if she was intimidated by this classic tune, which so many jazz musicians, especially singers, have begged off from recording. She shrugged off the thought that it was anything other than a very simple tune with a very deep lyric.
"Portrait of Stephane Grappelli" from Piano Jazz with Stephane Grappelli. Many of her "Piano Jazz" shows are available on CD, so you can listen over and over again to her ability to make great musicians relax and perform with her in a most intimate setting. This recording of the show with the hot jazz violin master included one of her "musical portraits", an improvised song that captures the essence of her guest. "It sounds corny", she said, "But that's jazz. If you can improvise on a particular theme, and have a person to work on, the results just happen." Among the shows she is most proud of are those with Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck.
Dave Brubeck Quartet - "Marian McPartland" from So What's New. Speaking of Brubeck, the great pianist turned the tables and recorded a portrait of Marian on this 1998 CD. Brubeck owes her though - he stole drummer Joe Morello from her trio in 1957, and his Quartet took off to fame from there. This version of the Quartet is Brubeck on piano, Bobby Militello on saxophone, Jack Six on bass and Randy Jones on drums.