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Marian McPartland/Steely Dan: Piano Jazz

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The 87-year-old pianist Marian McPartland excels in contexts most musicians of her generation would likely have nothing to do with. Piano Jazz, her long-running program on National Public Radio, has featured McPartland interviewing and playing with such modern hepcats as Myra Melford, Jack DeJohnette and Steely Dan. While clearly not a jazz ensemble, the music has always been a major component in Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s sound. This CD edition of Piano Jazz features McPartland with Steely Dan in stripped-down mode: Fagen’s acerbic vocals and piano and Becker’s sharp, Grant Green-ish guitar, along with Jay Leonhart’s bass and Keith Carlock’s drums. McPartland and the Steely Dan-ers share common ground in a love of Ellington, as evinced by elegant takes on three tunes from the Duke’s book, including the rare “Limbo Jazz.” From the Dan’s catalog, a few of their wryest gems, including the hit “Josie” (dig that twisty intro) and the doomsday-boogie mini-hit “Black Friday.”

Another iconic, eclectic rock performer, Elvis Costello, joined McPartland for an exploration of the Great American Songbook, in which Costello is well grounded. While no Johnny Hartman (actually, he’s closer to Hoagy Carmichael), Costello’s baritone has grown deeper and more tenderly expressive with age. Costello and McPartland engender the ideal set-’em-up-Joe ambience with “The Very Thought of You,” and their bare-bones treatment of “Gloomy Sunday” has rarely sounded so stark and, well, gloomy. No dilettante, Costello has actually contributed to the standards canon with “Almost Blue” (recorded by Chet Baker, among others) and the standard-to-be “I’m in the Mood Again,” a night’s-end, angst-ridden ballad worthy of Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely. McPartland’s playing is achingly, hauntingly spare throughout, with her honey-thick notes taking on an almost voicelike quality.

The double-disc 85 Candles is a superstar-studded tribute to the divine Ms. M. Recorded March 21, 2003, at New York City’s Birdland, the highlights are too numerous to recount, but here’s a cross-section: On the opener “I Love You,” trumpeter Dave Douglas stratospherically soars in a more mainstream manner than he’s usually associated with, while alto demigod Phil Woods sears, evoking Ornette Coleman. “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” features violinist Regina Carter tipping her rosined bow to the suave Gallic swing of Stephane Grappelli. McPartland and guitarist Jim Hall engage in a totally free, tantalizingly brief bit of free improvisation, and there’s a gorgeously spare “The Nearness of You” sung by Norah Jones that’d likely impress even Dinah Washington. 85 Candles not only celebrates McPartland’s artistry, but jazz itself. Get it.