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Contrasts by Marian McPartland

Concord Records has re-released two of Marian McPartland’s albums from the 1970’s and packaged them in such a way to make unmistably clear the versatility of McPartland’s talent. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of her radio program, Piano Jazz, is the way she can fall into the style of whoever her guest may be, from Bill Evans to Uri Caine, from Tommy Flanagan to D.D. Jackson, from Teddy Wilson to Chick Corea. Contrasts couldn’t be more descriptive as the title for McPartland’s 2-CD set. One of the CD’s features her trio playing 10 of Alec Wilder’s compositions, and the other CD "relegates" McPartland to the role of pianist in two of her husband Jimmy’s traditional groups in live performances.

At the time they were released, though, each album in its own way was of personal significance to McPartland. A good friend of hers, Alec Wilder surreptitiously recommended McPartland to be the hostess of Piano Jazz after he faced another commitment and had to resign from his radio show. The rest is history 25 years later. Mutual admirers--McPartland of Wilder for his songwriting ability and Wilder of McPartland for her ability to "McPartlandize" his songs, as he put it--the two of them exchanged gifts of music. One of those gifts was "Jazz Waltz for a Friend," which starts the first disk. Wilder gave it to McPartland during a gig in Rochester, New York, and she has performed it ever since.

All of Wilder’s tunes, eminently melodic, allow enough space for McPartland to improvise at her leisure. Indeed, Wilder was criticized by a music publisher for allowing too many rests in his music. However, such spaces, a widely praised characteristic of Miles Davis’s playing, fit right into jazz musicians’ needs as they take an original song and personalize it with chord substitutions and unpredictable tweakings of the melody, as McPartland does on the album once called Plays the Music of Alec Wilder.

The result of sessions a day apart in 1973, McPartland plays a duo with bassist Michael Moore on the first 5 tracks and then is joined by bassist Rusty Gilder and drummer Joe Corsello on the remainder. So even within the first disk, contrasts exist. With a freer interpretation of Wilder’s tunes as Moore essentially follows McPartland’s lead and grounds her playing with light movement, the duo tracks are more expansive and investigative, McPartland delving into the harmonic possibilities of the tunes. On the other hand, her trio performances possess a light swing and metrical regularity that attain a singing quality.

If one track from each disk were played consecutively in a blindfold test, a listener would be hard-pressed to identify McPartland as the same piano player in both. While her husband Jimmy remained within the traditional jazz genre throughout his career, as proven once again by these sessions from the early 1970’s, McPartland’s curiosity and wide-ranging talent moved on to encompass an infinitude of styles, even as she remained interested in--and in fact enjoyed--trad. Her memory as sharp as always, McPartland remembers both of the sessions that were included on A Sentimental Journey, and she provides details about them in the liner notes. She remembers such nuggets as Jimmy’s use of the Harmon mute on "Sentimental Journey" despite his initial hesitancy or the emphases he used when he sang "I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" ("with kisses on your bottom").

Tracks from each of the sessions alternate on the second disk, and once we are invigorated by the all-out energy of "Royal Garden Blues," distinguished by Hank Berger’s sly trombone playing, "Sentimental Journey" ensues with a completely different sound, particularly because of the addition of Bubby Tate on tenor saxophone.

But where is Marian McPartland during all of this? Even when Jimmy sings "Basin Street Blues" (on which one would expect piano accompaniment), the horns harmonize to back him up and Marian provides merely the sparkles and the comping. Her introductions to "Perdido" and "When You Wish Upon a Star" are ordinary enough, and the memorable playing on each is Tate’s tart solo on the former and trombonist Vic Dickerson’s extroverted solo on the latter. No, A Sentimental Journey was released to feature the groups themselves while Marian McPartland remained in a supporting role similar to that of the bassist’s or the drummer’s. Nonetheless, one can surmise that she didn’t care which role she assumed.

What Marian McPartland did care about was the music itself--and being a part of a vast multitude of musical groups and having fun and interacting with the musicians and entertaining listeners and embracing life. Those are the similarities inherent all of her musical activities, despite the contrasts resulting from the boundlessness of her imagination as she conforms to the styles of others.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Marian McPartland
  • CD Title: Contrasts
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Reissue Original Release: 1992, 1994
  • Record Label: Concord
  • Tracks: Disk 1: Jazz Waltz for a Friend, Why?, While We’re Young, Lullaby for a Lady, Inner Circle, I’ll Be Around, Trouble Is a Man, Homework, Where Are the Good Companions?, It’s So Peaceful in the Country Disk 2: Royal Garden Blues, Sentimental Journey, Blue Prelude, Dinah, Basin Street Blues, When You Wish upon a Star, Avalon, Perdido, Willow Weep for Me, I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, Polka Dots and Moonbeams, Wolverine Blues
  • Musicians: Marian McPartland (piano); Jimmy McPartland (cornet, vocals); Vic Dickenson (trombone); Hank Berger (trombone, banjo); Buddy Tate (saxophone); Jack Maheu (clarinet); Rusty Gilder, Michael Moore (bass); Joe Corsello, Gus Johnson, Mike Bergeron, Larry Bell (drums)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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