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Steely Dan: Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz

John Kelman By

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Purists may balk at the idea of piano legend Marian McPartland tarnishing the unadulterated nature of her NPR series, Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz—which has seen her interview and play with artists including Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, and many others—by inviting pianist/vocalist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker, more commonly known as the pop group Steely Dan, to the studio for conversation and performance.

But anyone who knows Steely Dan knows that, while it's unabashedly a pop group, it has always incorporated a personal love of jazz into a stylistically distinctive vernacular. And over the years the Dan has seen serious jazzers, including Wayne Shorter, Phil Woods, Chris Potter, and Peter Erskine as performers in various incarnations, which is not so much a permanent fixture as it is a cooperative that finds Becker and Fagen constructing bands to suit the immediate needs of whatever they happen to be doing at the time. And Becker and Fagen have always been serious jazz fans, even going so far as to include Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" on Pretzel Logic.

And so, this CD edition of Piano Jazz finds Becker and Fagen as clearly interested in McPartland as she is in them. And as much as the conversation demonstrates just how encyclopaedic Becker and Fagen's knowledge of the jazz tradition is, it's when they pull out the stops to play tunes by Duke and Mercer Ellington, DePaul/Raye and W.C. Handy that their deep roots are in plain evidence. While Fagen is not exactly a piano virtuoso—nor has he ever professed to be—he is an effective foil for McPartland on the three duets they play—"Mood Indigo," "Star Eyes," and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be."

Joined by bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Keith Carlock, Becker and Fagen further demonstrate their roots on the Ellington tune "Limbo Jazz," and a barrelhouse romp through Handy's "Hesitation Blues," which sparks a conversation about Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. While the emphasis of Piano Jazz is usually on the guest artist(s), Becker and Fagen are equally interested in McPartland's long career and her experiences meeting many of the jazz giants that they've followed as fans.

Stripped-down, "unplugged" versions of Steely Dan tunes—"Josie," "Black Friday" and "Chain Lightning"—with McPartland playing on all three—show that not only can Becker and Fagen adapt to a rawer, less-produced context, but that McPartland is equally adept at embracing material that some might believe is beyond her scope.

What Steely Dan do may not be jazz by any conventional definition, but there is no doubt that the information is there. And through the course of McPartland's conversations with Becker and Fagen, their knowledge and respect for the tradition is clear.

For a chance to hear McPartland and the leaders of Steely Dan stretching themselves in ways that should ultimately not be that surprising at all, Piano Jazz is an informative and ultimately entertaining release.

Visit Steely Dan and Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz on the web.


Track Listing: Conversation; Limbo Jazz; Conversation; Josie; Conversation; Mood Indigo; Conversation; Star Eyes; Conversation; Hesitation Blues; Conversation; Things Ain't What They Use to Be; Conversation; Chain Lightning; Conversation; Black Friday

Personnel: Donald Fagen (piano, vocals), Walter Becker (guitar), Marian McPartland (piano)
With Jay Leonhart (acoustic bass), Keith Carlock (drums)

Title: Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Concord Music Group

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