Thursday, April 3, 2008

Marian McPartland: Twilight World

Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.08
Buy CD: Twilight World

One definition of legend is "a person who achieves legendary fame." 

The jazz world has produced a number of legends — Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman come to mind — but only a few are still with us. One of those, still performing, is pianist/composer Marian McPartland, who celebrated her 90th birthday March 21. 

Born in England in 1918, Margaret Marian Turner was a child prodigy who played piano by age 3. She was exposed to jazz in her teens and, from that moment on, her future was fixed. She enrolled in London's famous Guildhall School of Music in 1938; Billy Mayerl, at the time a famous music hall entertainer, asked her to join his four-piano stage act. She did so ... despite a financial bribe offered by her father if she'd complete her schooling. 

She performed on the vaudeville circuit, using the stage name of Marian Page. In 1944, while entertaining troops during World War II, she met Jimmy McPartland, a traditional cornetist from Chicago. They married the following year and, after war's end, McPartland brought his wife home to the Windy City. 

They worked there until 1949, at which point they moved to New York and soon were immersed in that jazz universe. From 1952 to '60, Marian led a trio at the Hickory House, a restaurant/jazz club on famous 52nd Street. Between sets and after work, she'd visit the other nearby clubs, to listen and learn. In 1978, she began her famous alliance with National Public Radio; Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz remains the network's longest-running cultural show. 

McPartland's attributes are many. She's an outstanding pianist, and her harmonic sense and innovative ability are second to none. If she played the same tune half a dozen times in straight succession, each rendition would be completely different. Additionally, her memory is prodigious; it's impossible to name a song she doesn't know. 

Most importantly, her style has grown with the time: No matter when she plays — or has played — she sounds "current." 

Twilight World is the 21st album McPartland has done for Concord Records during her 30-year association with the label; it's also her first studio release in nine years. 

Except for a short (and unsatisfying) stretch with Benny Goodman, McPartland has concentrated on performing with small jazz groups. That preference continues here, where she's backed by bassist Gary Mazaroppi and drummer Glen Davis. The album is living proof that she's as new and fresh as any instrumentalist on the scene. 

The nine tracks contain several of her own compositions and a few by Ornette Coleman and Bill Evans, along with some wonderful old standards. Needless to say, they all swing. 

As for retirement? 

McPartland already has guest artists lined up for the next two years of Piano Jazz

The lady is unbelievable, and this album is an absolute must-have. 

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