June 2005

Marian McPartland & Friends - 85 Candles - Live in New York
Concord Jazz
Released: 2005
Format: CD

by Wes Marshall

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Most people who know Marian McPartland today know her as the prolific host of the Piano Jazz radio show on NPR, a proud achievement that for the last 27 years has given a forum to nearly every important piano-jazz artist as well as quite a few non-piano players. Jazz cats know her as a swinging Brit who had the tenacity to stick it out in a business that imagines her with three strikes against her before she ever plays a note. She’s white, which means she is taking jobs away from blacks; she’s British, which means she can’t swing; and she’s a woman in a business that treats women instrumentalists worse than the janitors that clean up the clubs. Through it all, she has charmed everyone with her wit and sweet disposition, all the while recording over 90 albums and making a good living for herself and helping promote both black and white jazz players. She took three strikes and turned them into a grand slam.

When she turned 85, concert producer John Schreiber threw a four-hour party and invited some of McPartland’s fans -- the musicians she has played with, helped and inspired -- to come show their appreciation. All four hours were recorded; about two hours are on this new two-CD set from Concord Jazz.

The CD is filled with high points. Like Barbara Carroll, herself a spry 80 years old, singing Sondheim’s "Old Friend" then ripping through a fiery version of "Have You Met Miss Jones" that would probably scare off most piano players a fourth her age. Or, in another example of age-defying grace, Jackie Cain shows up for "While We’re Young." This is, to my knowledge, her only time to step before the microphone since the death of her husband, Roy Kral. From 1946 until he died in 2002, they worked together as Jackie and Roy, producing some of jazz’s most fun and ebullient tongue twisters. The few times each night when they slowed down to let Jackie sing a ballad were always moments to treasure. McPartland doesn’t have the telepathic link with Jackie that her husband did, but the gist of the song comes through beautifully.

Several of McPartland’s younger fans showed up, as well. Two songs are nearly worth the price of the CD by themselves. First, "The Nearness of You" glides in on a slow, sultry, sexy reading by Norah Jones. Freed from having to play the piano herself, Jones gives her full attention to reading the lyric, and based on what she accomplishes, I wish she’d do a CD of standards with someone else (Bill Charlap or Brad Mehldau would be good choices) on piano. The other standout track is by Roy Hargrove, a fellow alumnus with Jones of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts in Dallas. He delivers a tear-drenched version of "My Foolish Heart" on a mellow-toned flugelhorn. It’s guaranteed to tug at your foolish heart.

There are a couple of low points, like McPartland and Jim Hall taking a poor stab at free jazz on "Free Piece." And Chris Potter and McPartland’s race through "Tangerine" lacks any coherent direction. Plus, one other minor demerit for using too many of Concord Jazz’s second team. Where’s Scott Hamilton? Gary Burton? Chick Corea? Joey DeFrancesco?

Sonically, this is strictly close-mic multi-mono. Instruments pop out at you like you were sitting three inches from them, because that is where the microphones are. A little compression, reverb and EQ sweetening have been added as well. In other words, it is a typical contemporary jazz release. The sound is never disturbing, but it also never makes you take notice of its verisimilitude. Luckily, the music still shines through.

I can’t wait to see what Concord Jazz cooks up for MrPartland's 90th birthday!