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Marian McPartland: Just Friends

Robert Spencer By

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Marian McPartland is a magnificent institution, and this is a magnificent musical distillation of what she does best on her celebrated "Piano Jazz" series. There's none of the fascinating conversation, but the duets are here: two each with Tommy Flanagan, Renee Rosnes, George Shearing, Geri Allen, Dave Brubeck, and Gene Harris. McPartland rounds out the disc with three sweet minutes of "When the Saints Go Marching In," dedicated to her late husband Jimmy. The astounding aspect of this disc is that it was recorded in celebration of her 80th birthday, but one would never know it from listening. Two pianos can be impossibly chunky, but McPartland is the consummate accompanist, and she brings out in each of her partners here what is characteristic in their playing.

Flanagan is up first, with "Jeepers Creepers" and "I've Got a Crush on You." These takes shimmer with genial good spirits, although "I've Got a Crush on You" begins piquantly with a rubato introduction rich with contrasting moods. Rosnes' takes on "Some Time Ago" and the bluesy "It's You or No One" are a bit less smooth and glossy: her attack is forceful here, and she turns in some marvelous singing, trilling passages.

Then comes Shearing with "Just Friends" and "Twilight World." Jack Kerouac's favorite pianist plays breezily here but the overwhelming force of his playing is unmistakable, especially on the latter piece. A contemporary art world favorite, Geri Allen, follows with a few chances and dissonance on "Lullaby of the Leaves," but generally she sounds as much on holiday as everyone else on the program. The most fascinating track is "Chrysalis," her improvisation with McPartland, where she plays the piano strings while McPartland doesn't seem in a great hurry to bring things down to earth. Here McPartland demonstrates her wonderful versatility: she sounds as at home here as on every other track, and the two find a few interesting riffs.

The longest track is "Gone with the Wind" with Brubeck. Brubeck's harmonic sophistication is at the fore on this brooding take, which is virtually matched in mood on his tribute piece, "Marian McPartland." Gene Harris sounds a bit subdued as well on "There Will Never Be Another You," but "Lady Be Good" is a jaunty read.

Thank God for Marian McPartland – and a Happy 80th to this extraordinarily sensitive and intelligent accompanist and improviser.


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