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Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz with Frank Zappa

Ken Dryden By

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Although many fans of Marian McPartland's long running NPR series heard former Frank Zappa sideman George Duke's guest appearance on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, few are likely to be aware of Zappa's own visit to the program, which took place in early 1988, just prior to the start of what would be his final tour. McPartland's interest in Zappa developed from conversations with a number of jazz musicians who had played with him, while the guitarist's familiarity with jazz helped to make things work. At times Zappa's sarcastic replies to her interview questions threaten to befuddle her (but never do), especially his sardonic response to her query "What did you mean on the album Live at Roxy & Elsewhere when you said 'Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny?'"

With keyboardist Bobby Martin (sticking to grand piano on this occasion), bassist Scott Thunes and drummer Chad Wackerman accompanying Zappa, they open with his snappy "Peaches En Regalia." Following a brief journey into "Oh No" (also known as the main theme from Lumpy Gravy), Zappa invites McPartland to sit in for his blistering "Zoot Allures," where the pianist impresses him with her bluesy solo. Then it is the guitarist's turn to surprise his host by playing Eric Dolphy's "G.W." (a tribute to Gerald Wilson), with a finesse that indicates that Zappa would have made a formidable jazz guitarist had he chosen that path. The program host sits in again for a poignant take of Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments," with effective solos by McPartland, Zappa and Martin.

For her solo feature, McPartland again shows off a bit with an impressionistic take of Zappa's "Twenty Small Cigars," causing its composer to ask, "Do you wanna go on the road with us?" Finally, all ends well with a rousing finale of "King Kong," prompting McPartland to say, "I've never had so much fun playing rock!"

Sadly, this show was lost in the shuffle due to a distribution problem with the Piano Jazz reel-to-reel tapes (prior to most stations switching to satellite feeds to obtain NPR programs), while some conservative station managers refused to air this particular program at all. It also was never added to the rebroadcast schedule, for reasons not clearly known, so it is one of the rarest editions of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz ever aired.

Tracks: Peaches En Regalia; Oh No; Zoot Allures; G. W.; Stolen Moments; Twenty Small Cigars; King Kong.

Personnel: Frank Zappa: electric guitar, vocals; Bobby Martin: piano; Scott Thunes: electric bass; Chad Wackerman: drums; Marian McPartland: piano.

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