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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?”

When McPartland sits down with Rosemary Clooney (recorded in October 1991), it’s like eavesdropping on two dear friends’ gossipy coffee klatch. They reminisce about Rosie’s early days with Tony Pastor, her struggles with Mitch Miller, her friendship with Marlene Dietrich and her love of Ellington and Gershwin. Clooney spins delightful tales about dinner with Cole Porter, meeting Billy Strayhorn and her 1953 marriage to Jose Ferrer in Durant, Okla. (“One of the garden spots of America,” she quips.) Though Clooney’s breathing is obviously labored, it’s a rare delight to hear her sing with just piano accompaniment. She and McPartland sidle through a charming “Don’t Fence Me In” and a hauntingly beautiful “September Song.”

Less reverent than the Gillespie session and less sweetly nostalgic than her time with Clooney, McPartland’s hour with Dave Brubeck (from March 1984) is pure, incisive fun. Brubeck recalls the early octet days, suggesting that his pioneering decision to tour college campuses came about simply “because we were a little too far out for the average nightclub.” He remembers auditioning for Paul Desmond for an armed services jazz band and thinking that his future collaborator “was stark raving mad.” McPartland reminds him about their playing four hands in Detroit and giggles suggestively over his “big mitts.” We learn that Art Tatum is Brubeck’s favorite pianist, that Fats Waller was his “first jazz piano influence” and that the first record he ever bought was a Waller 78 called “Let’s Be Fair and Square in Love” with “There’s Honey on the Moon Tonight” on the flip side. (Amazingly, McPartland knows the tune and plays a few bars). Their banter is like the music itself: freeform, unscripted, spontaneous and imaginative, yet incredibly tight. They duet on five Brubeck masterpieces, saving the best till last: a red-hot rendition of “Take Five.” Basking in the soft glow of their mutual respect, McPartland declares it “an hour worth millions.” Indeed.

Originally Published