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Marian McPartland/Dave Brubeck: Piano Jazz Radio Broadcast

True genius has no ego. Such is the case with Marian McPartland. Among pianists, only George Shearing rivals her as Britain’s most treasured import. It is, however, as host of NPR’s Piano Jazz, a gig that’s lasted a quarter-century, that McPartland demonstrates elegant egalitarianism. She is the ideal kibitzer, keenly intelligent and wickedly funny, yet never obsequious or condescending with her A-list guests. Like a jazzy Dick Cavett, she’s an educated fan who’s remarkably good at extracting amusing, insightful stories. Last year, select sessions from the Piano Jazz series began to appear on CD. Four discs were released, featuring hour-long confabs with Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson and Carmen McRae. Now the list has been augmented with three very different yet equally bountiful additions.

With Dizzy Gillespie, McPartland is near reverential, explaining that hearing his experimental sound in Paris in the 1940s “was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.” Gillespie, age 67 at the time of the January 1985 broadcast, is slow to warm to the chatty format but becomes increasingly animated as the hour progresses. His insights, consistently sublime, vary from an explanation of how his ability to count out a bebop beat is derived from his early skill as a conga player to a richly detailed analysis of Aretha Franklin’s singing. Typical of Piano Jazz segments, the conversation is punctuated by solo guest performances and thematic duets. With Diz on trumpet and McPartland at the keyboard, the old pals rip through “In a Mellow Tone” and “Lullaby of the Leaves.” The real highlights, though, are their soaring piano duets on “‘Round Midnight” and “Night in Tunisia.” Equally exceptional are McPartland’s “For Dizzy” and “Portrait of Diz,” two improvised portraits so vivid they prompt Gillespie to gleefully exclaim, “Wow! Is that what I look like?”

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