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Trick or Treat with Marian McPartland

Marian McPartland closed out another successful run of shows at the Jazz Bakery on Halloween night with a delightful bag of tricks and treats. Her set was adventurous and wide-ranging, including luminous originals, warhorses from the great American songbook and a handful of compositions by several of the most distinctive composers in jazz history: Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and even Ornette Coleman. Nearly as important was the graciousness, charm and wit with which she directed the proceedings; her funny and informative introductions to each tune were nearly as satisfying as the songs themselves.

It being Halloween and all, Marian couldn't resist playing a trick on the sizable crowd and threatened not to play anything in the spirit of the holiday. Upon a little further reflection, she decided to choose an appropriately themed tune instead and opened with Cy Coleman's "Witchcraft." Her reading was melodically rich and pretty, her touch on piano as deft as ever well into her eighties; far be it from me to question the word of such a distinguished individual, but the deft manner in which her trio (rounded out by bassist Bill Douglass and Charlie Brown on drums) handled the piece made her subsequent claim not to have performed the song in forty years seem a little incredible.

Her arrangement of "Take the A Train" was really unusual, taken at a very deliberate pace that belied the (unsung) lyric's admonishments to "Hurry, hurry, hurry." It worked, though--the slower tempo allowed her to bring out nuances in the chord structure that ordinarily get lost or blown past. The Ellingtonia theme continued with a gentle reading of the Duke's ballad "Warm Valley;" recordings of both pieces can be found on Marian's 2000 Ellington tribute album The Single Petal of a Rose.

Marian performed two of her own compositions, the ballad "Twilight World" and "Threnody (a Lament)" written for her close musical friend and inspiration Mary Lou Williams. For someone with seven decades of recording under her belt, Marian McPartland still seems a little shy about performing her own music. She needn't have worried though, the crowd loved them both.

Rounding out the set were a variety of different songs from a wide range of composers. Marian is one of the only pianists I know of (the late John Lewis is the most notable other one) to try and tackle the seemingly keyboard unfriendly music of Ornette Coleman; her version of "Ramblin'" was a hoot, with the various chordings added to the riff presumably her own invention. But it was her version of Monk's "Bemisha Swing"--perhaps not coincidentally a favorite of Coleman associates Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins--that sparked the group's freest improvisation. And, of course, an evening with Marian McPartland would be incomplete without her version of Jerome Germ's "All the Things You Are" adorned with her always entertaining "fake fugue" section.

Marian McPartland came to Culver City and wooed the crowd at the Jazz Bakery by playing with great artistry and speaking with humor and insight. The depth of her experience showed in both her reminiscences about people like Evans and Alec Wilder and in the masterful way she subsequently handled their compositions. It may have been Halloween, but there were no boos heard in this room.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Marian McPartland
  • Concert Date: 10/31/2004
  • Venue: Jazz Bakery
  • City State Country: Culver City, CA
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