Still going strong at 85, Marian McPartland hardly coasts her way through a concert, playing a predictable set. She does have her favorite quips, quoting Lawrence Welk’s insistence on introducing Billy Strayhorn’s best known composition as "Take a Train," or dedicating Chick Corea’s "Windows" to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, but her performances always contain (as Whitney Balliett describes memorable jazz) "the sound of surprise."
Two favorite collaborators from Chicago, bassist Jim Cox and drummer Charles Braugham, accompanied her during her concert at the Von Braun Center-Concert Hall in Huntsville, Alabama. The piano provided by Baldwin was not up to the standard I’ve heard her play during numerous gigs over the past 15 years, and Cox’s stick bass (necessary because of the difficulty and expense of shipping his regular acoustic bass, especially on a commuter jet) lacked the warmth of the larger instrument. But the music easily overcame these reservations.
McPartland kicked off the first set with "Take the ‘A’ Train," though it is doubtful that most of the audience would have recognized it right away, if she hadn’t announced it in advance. Her very abstract solo introduction built tension to a feverish pitch; when her rhythm section joined in, she continued to deviate from its theme with a choppy, angular and playful interpretation.
Even though she didn’t exactly name the next piece in advance, she gave a big hint that it was about most of the audience’s home state. Even though her approach to "Stars Fell on Alabama" was more direct, people were slow to catch on, in spite of her delicate, straight-ahead and delightful treatment of this now infrequently played ballad.
I can’t remember ever hearing McPartland perform Benny Golson’s "Along Came Betty" during any of her previous concerts I’ve attended, but she set up a solid groove which engaged the audience. Her sparse introduction allowed Cox to carry the melody.
She returned to Billy Strayhorn’s extensive songbook with "Raincheck," a buoyant piece she was inspired to learn after hearing Tommy Flanagan play it at the late lamented piano bar Bradley’s in New York City. Her adventurous spirit took hold, as even a veteran listener might have had trouble identifying it if he or she walked into the hall in the middle of it.
"St. Louis Blues," W. C. Handy’s best known work (originally written as a tango, according to Dave Brubeck), found McPartland in a humorous mood. While her interpretation occasionally hinted at a "Latin Tinge," she quickly moved away from its familiar chord changes, at one point interpolating a number of quotes, including "Rockin’ in Rhythm" and "Kansas City."
Chick Corea’s "Windows" is an old favorite of the pianist’s, and her dedication of it to Bill Gates still tickles her audiences. Cox was featured playing both pizzicato and arco in his marvelous solo, and McPartland’s unresolved ending added a touch of mystery.
The first set closed with "Things Ain’t What They Used to Be," launched By the pianist before the applause following "Windows" had faded. Her jaunty approach, with its two-handed tremolos, almost suggested the sound of an organ.
Before the second half of the concert got underway, local radio personality Douglas Turner conducted an enjoyable interview of Marian McPartland. She started this set with an Ornette Coleman blues, "Turnaround," which was "not one of his dangerous tunes," she deadpanned.
Prior to her next number, problems erupted with a malfunctioning monitor behind Cox. She walked over to discuss it with him; but the technician was able to quickly fix it, so she returned to the piano, quipping "That was okay, I needed the exercise." As she sat down, her cordless microphone rolled off the piano onto the keyboard, sounded a loud, dissonant chord and dropped to the floor, provoking her comment, "Gee, I’ll be falling off the bench next." I forgot to note if Braugham added a vaudeville "Buh-Doom" drumbeat afterwards, it would have been appropriate.
Mary Lou Williams is a giant in jazz history, though her contributions are overlooked by many (most notably Ken Burns, who ignored her entirely in his documentary series on jazz). But Marian, who was a friend of Williams’, has long been a champion of her compositions. "Scratchin’ in the Gravel," a bluesy groove with a shuffle rhythm, was likely accompanied by some 500 feet quietly tapping along with its infectious theme.