While the time has hopefully passed where a person’s gender should have any impact on the recognition they receive for their art, still it should be noted that pianist Marian McPartland, now entering her eighty-sixth year, has been both a musical trend-setter and role model for more than one generation of aspiring female jazz instrumentalists.
In a time where a woman’s association with jazz was, at best, relegated to the role of vocalist, McPartland not only emerged as a performer of significance, but one who showed considerable forward-thinking. While she has to be considered a mainstream artist, her style is more harmonically sophisticated than many of her peers, and certainly that of her husband, the late Jimmy McPartland. With the release of Windows , part of Concord Records’ ongoing program of releasing back-to-back seminal recordings at a budget price, we get to hear McPartland at the top of her game on a pair of releases originally released in 1979 and 1980.
First up is Portrait of Marian McPartland , a 1979 studio date that sees her reunited with bassist Brian Torff and drummer Jake Hanna, both back from her 1978 Concord début, From This Moment On , and the chemistry evident on that first recording continues to develop. Hanna, in particular, is notable for his melodically inventive drum solos; his work on Chick Corea’s “Matrix” is understated, but contains a lyrical centre that is rare for a drummer. Torff provides a firm anchor and a pleasant harmonic counterpoint to McPartland’s elegant and economical style, contributing a spare but confident solo on “No Trumps.” McPartland is engaging throughout, with a deft touch that makes tunes like the standard “I Won’t Dance” swing lightly contributing a solo that owes as much to boogie woogie as it does to more modern ideas.
The surprise of the first disc is alto saxophonist and flautist Jerry Dodgion who, with a résumé that includes Herbie Hancock, Oliver Nelson, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith and many, many others, deserves to be a more recognized name. His flute work on “Wind Flower” and McPartland’s own “Time and Time Again” is especially notable for its delicacy and lush tone; why he has never recorded an album under his own name is a mystery.
Disc two brings Hanna and Torff back for a live set, the 1980 At the Festival. Another relaxed affair, the set ranges from the lightly swinging “I Love You” and “Willow Weep for Me” to Chick Corea’s jazz waltz “Windows”; from the tender ballad, McPartland’s own “In the Days of Our Love” to the more intense reading of Sonny Rollins' “Oleo.” Joining the trio on the last three tracks is another under-rated saxophonist, Mary Fettig, who has a larger-than-life sound that is unusual for an alto player.
Both discs have their surprises, with clever turns that reveal a richer harmonic depth than one might expect from such a mainstream program; but that is what sets McPartland apart from many of her peers. Over the course of seven decades, she has striven to bring a deeper sense of sophistication to her craft by covering works from the Great American Songbook, but also by more advanced composers including Corea and Hancock. She demonstrates a desire to keep moving the mainstream forward, ensuring that tradition continues to grow by incorporating new elements.
McPartland, of course, continues to record regularly along with her duties as host of her popular “Piano Jazz” program on National Public Radio. One of the ways she keeps young and keeps thinking ahead is through this program, which sees her interview and play with established as well as up-and-coming artists. Windows is an appropriate title for a reissue that gives us a snapshot of McPartland at a particularly fine point in time; what is encouraging for us all is that she continues to prove that one is never too old to take on new challenges.
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Personnel: Marian McPartland (piano), Jerry Dodgion (alto saxophone and flute on disk 1), Mary Fettig (alto saxophone on disk 2), Brian Torff (bass), Jake Hanna (drums)