Continuing Education

Marian McPartland Accrues Style Bit by Bit

All are worth hearing, and the Evans is a classic. It begins with him playing the original written version of "Waltz With Debbie" and quickly evolves into a demonstration of Evans's ideas about displacing rhythms. A born teacher, he discusses the need to know a tune's changes ("Intuition has to lead knowledge, but it can't be out there alone"), while dismissing the need for group rehearsal—everything develops on the job, he says; in 20 years, the trio rehearsed maybe four times, usually before concert recordings. Most of the Piano Jazz shows have sent me back to records I'd forgotten or overlooked. For one example, while insisting he lacks the "dimension" to be a solo pianist, Evans laughingly refers to the endlessly repeated melody of his 1975 "People" (Alone Again on Fantasy); lo and behold, a performance I once thought dreary re-emerges, "Nefertiti"-like, as a subtly impassioned tour de force—albeit not one I'm likely to play very often. He speaks of his early idols, of how he started off with boogie woogie, of the weddings and socials he played, including a polka band at Manville Polish Home, then plays Toots Thieleman's alternating-keys arrangement of "Days of Wine and Roses," transfigures Ellington's "Reflections in D," and raves about Marian's "While We're Young."

An infinite learning curve
photo: Elizabeth Annas
An infinite learning curve

Peterson begins with a highly Tatum-esque reading of "Old Folks," and shows how he uses minor seconds to "thicken" the harmony. McPartland picks it up and says, "See, already I copped something and it's only the first tune." He says most pianists are ambidextrous, at least in their thoughts. She says, "I am in my thoughts, but watch me when I get to the piano." Peterson's in a stomping mood, demonstrating broken tenths as compared with striding octaves, telling funny anecdotes, chivalrously cradling McPartland's choruses, which are sometimes shaky, though she adds pretty chords to "Like Someone in Love." He reveals that what she thought was his variation on "Satin Doll" is an interpolation of an old and obscure song: "You mean you don't recall 'Auf Wiedersehen'?" (Who knew he was a wit? Yet other examples abound in his remarkable memoir, A Jazz Odyssey, published by Continuum; his comments about Bud Powell are ludicrous, but his Lester Young stories more than compensate.) McPartland's best showing, not surprisingly, is her solo, "Willow Creek." Carmen McRae was in great voice for her hour, and the sound balance and casualness underscore its crisp directness. Clearly enjoying McPartland, she is uncharacteristically genial. Though her piano is percussive and efficient, each note struck with confidence, it's no match for McPartland's technique, which supplies her with a gently radiant boost. They talk about modern tunes and McRae pays homage to James Taylor ("Fire and Rain" is a "cute tune," McPartland avers); yet when asked to perform a new song, she prefers Jule Styne and Harold Arlen. Chick Corea's hour begins with platitudes ("music is life") and the through-composed "Brasilia," but grows deeper and more candid as he is encouraged to explore Monk and Waller and a few of his own early benchmarks. Blue Note has just reissued his masterly 1968 trio album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, which had a huge impact in its day and stands up as well as anything he's done. It was a favorite of McPartland's (she concedes less interest in his fusion period), but although she can't get him to revisit "Matrix" or "Windows," her limpid version of "Crystal Silence" stimulates them both, leading to a completely free piece and a redoubtable capper in "Spain"—from which Marian McPartland no doubt picked up a few more tricks.

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