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Marian McPartland/Mary Lou Williams: Piano Jazz

One of the most refreshing and most durable aspects of National Public Radio is its weekly broadcast of Piano Jazz, hosted by the equally durable Marian McPartland. The British Energizer Bunny has been interviewing other pianists, as well as other instrumentalists and vocalists, for over a quarter of a century, drawing them out, inspiring them to reveal personal anecdotes. If the Beverly Hills-based Jazz Alliance has recordings of every program, it is in possession of a treasure trove that would make the Smithsonian drool.

Typical of McPartland’s style, and the program’s quality, is this inaugural broadcast, from Oct. 8, 1978, in which McPartland set the pattern for the next 26 years: With guest Mary Lou Williams at one piano, and McPartland at the other, they simply chatted away and played excerpts or complete tunes. But McPartland was smart. She let the guest dominate conversationally and musically, and fortunately Williams brought bassist Ronnie Boykins with her. Williams was made to feel so comfortable, she even sang an old tune that she and Larry Gales had dashed off years earlier. That’s how effective McPartland could host. More musical highlights: a heavily reharmonized “I Can’t Get Started” and “Exit Playing,” a closing duet written by Williams.

Windows is a double CD rerelease of the albums Portrait of Marian McPartland (1979)-with Jerry Dodgion (alto and flute), Brian Torff (bass) and Jake Hanna (drums)-and At the Festival (1980), with the same rhythm and joined by Kenton alumna Mary Fettig (alto sax) on three tracks. Both discs are class acts, with mostly well-known standards. Separately, each CD is too short by today’s standards; combined the total time is too long. But there’s no dilemma when it comes to the music.

McPartland’s musicianship is superior throughout both CDs-just different. Compare the politeness of “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” on disc one to the rough edges of “Willow Weep for Me” on disc two. Or the pensive, introspective pianist of “It Never Entered My Mind” or “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” (disc one) to the aggressive bopster who is blazing in unison with Torff on “Cotton Tail” or reaching Mach 3 on Rollins’ “Oleo.”

Perhaps it’s the sterility of the studio as opposed to the inspiration of the crowd at the Concord festival, but even Jerry Dodgion sounds tamer indoors. If he had changed venues with Mary Fettig, maybe the result would have been different. Fettig becomes airborne pretty quickly on the ballad “Here’s That Rainy Day,” and she ignites the crowd on “Green Dolphin Street” and on “Oleo.” Hanna was at the top of his game, and Torff was growling and double stopping all over the place.

And kudos to Concord for great sound reproduction in both settings.

Originally Published