McPartland Fills Bakery With Pure Skill

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You say you can't draw a crowd for a jazz event on a Monday after the sun goes down? Don't tell that to Marian McPartland, who attracted an overflow, turn-away-the-latecomers audience to her one-night performance at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City.

McPartland may be best known these days as the host of National Public Radio's long-running, Peabody Award-winning "Piano Jazz" radio show, in which she shares a duo-piano hour with some of the music's high-visibility artists. Already in its 18th year, the program's easygoing conversations and superlative, spontaneous performances have become models for the popular presentation of jazz.

But many members of the enthusiastically appreciative throng clearly knew McPartland from her previous work as well. When she referred to having worked at Manhattan's Hickory House "in the distant past" (actually, the early '50s), she was greeted with a hearty round of applause.

McPartland, who turns 76 next week, has a charmingly reserved quality, somewhat self-effacing, that easily brings her listeners into her orbit. Missing a note on the end of one rapid arpeggio, she cocked her head, smiled and plunked out the correct last key.

Her diverse repertoire included a liberal dose of Duke Ellington numbers ("In a Sentimental Mood," the rarely heard "Clothed Woman" and Billy Strayhorn's "Raincheck"), standards such as "All the Things You Are," more contemporary items such as Clare Fischer's "Pensativa" and her own "Ambience."

McPartland's skill, in its essence, is that of a musical miniaturist. At heart, she is a pure pianist, and she did not hesitate to use the entire resources of the instrument, from thundering low tones and rhapsodic runs to lyrical, single note lines. But she never overwhelmed her material with piano technique alone, choosing instead to let the songs determine their settings. The fascination of her interpretations, in fact, lay in her capacity to carefully frame the melody of each piece within appropriately colored, richly sophisticated chordal and rhythmic accompaniment.

The only regrettable aspect of the booking was that it was a one-nighter. With a packed house for a Monday appearance, there's no telling what McPartland might draw for a full-week run at the Jazz Bakery. But it would be nice to find out.

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