To Noah, It was such a kick having you on Piano Jazz! Hope you like “Kaleidoscope.” Love, Marian McPartland.
So went the handwritten inscription on the book of transcriptions of Marian McPartland performances that arrived in the mail a few weeks after I taped my appearance on Marian’s NPR show in 2004. Last week marked Marian’s passing. It’s hard to use the word “tragic” to refer to the departure of a 95-year-old, never mind someone whose life was so full, but she will be missed. As much as I will miss her as a musician and public figure (as outlined below, I have a deep affection for her music), but that sort of warmth is what I will always remember most.
That taping was interestingly-timed as well – I was going through an “ugly duckling” phase as a player (it was only a month or so before I began using the ring splints that are now so central to my ongoing capacity to play) and the taping occurred literally 2 days after my life without kids came to an abrupt end. The music and on-air camaraderie were a “kick” for sure, but what really resonated was her genuine concern for my physical well-being (coming honestly as I watched her 86-year-old arthritic hands manhandle the piano) and her enthusiasm for my new life as a foster parent. I am grateful for all this (and for her subsequent warmth) and am glad there is so much music to remember her by.
1 ) “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (from Live at Shanghai Jazz)
I didn’t get a “portrait of Noah Baerman” when I was on Piano Jazz, but like other guests I did get to make a request for a solo piano tune for her to play. This was the piece I chose, on the strength of having heard this lovely recording. Plus it’s one of Kate’s favorite songs . . .
2 ) “Time and Time Again” (from Silent Pools)
Marian recorded this original composition, a lilting bossa nova, numerous times. Here both she and the piece really shine with the support of a string orchestra arranged and conducted by Alan Broadbent.
3 ) “I Feel Pretty” (from Marian McPartland Plays Leonard Bernstein)
This 1960 session features tight, swinging trio arrangements and some great soloing by Marian on material not always associated with jazz interpretations.
4 ) “Tickle-Toe” (from At the Hickory House)
Marian first really made her name with this trio featuring Bill Crow and Joe Morello (who was on drums the first time I heard Marian live in 1995) during their residency at the Hickory House in New York. This 1954 live version of a Basie signature is one of many highlights of that residency and that trio. Check out Marian’s energetic block chords here.
5 ) “Ambiance” (from From This Moment On)
This song is one of my favorite of Marian’s originals. On this great trio recording (with longtime associates Brian Torff and Jake Hanna), we think we’re in for a characteristically elegant McPartland ballad, and for several minutes we get just that. That is (spoiler alert!), until it transforms into a high-energy Latin number.
6 ) “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” (from Windows)
Given Marian’s connection to many of the old-time jazz greats (not insignificantly including her husband Jimmy, and important trumpeter and Dixieland revivalist), some folks don’t immediately realize how modern she was. The same trio as on the previous track is here, alongside saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, for a spirited working of Herbie Hancock’s early electric-era classic.
7 ) “Comin’ Home Baby” (from Bossa Nova + Soul)
In 1962 it wasn’t yet common to use electric piano in jazz, but here she is doing so on a funky, driving version of “Comin’ Home Baby” which then gives way to some swinging acoustic piano.
8 ) “I’m In the Mood for Swing” (from The Benny Carter Songbook)
This is a wonderful and fun album of Benny Carter tunes. As a bonus, about half the tracks (including this swinger) have Mr. Carter himself appearing on alto saxophone. He swings pretty darned hard for an 82-year-old here, foreshadowing Marian’s own longevity.
9 ) “Scratchin’ In the Gravel” (from Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz with Mary Lou Williams)
I allowed myself only one example of a duet with a guest performer from Piano Jazz, and it seemed appropriate for it to be this one from the very first taping of the show, alongside Williams, her dear friend and influence.
10 ) “Sweet and Lovely” (from Marian McPartland at the London House)
This tune was a signature tune of Marian’s, and I’m particularly partial to this extremely bluesy 1958 trio cut, recorded live in Chicago.
11 ) Honorable mention: “Kaleidoscope” (Piano Jazz theme)
I mean, how could I not?