Jazz / Marian McPartland Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Marian McPartland's unpushy, sophisticated style of playing piano could be described as supper-club jazz, yet she's a real improvising musician. Born in Windsor 76 years ago, McPartland was classically trained - an education still evident from the considerate, gentle way she presses the keys. She first worked with Billy Mayerl before marrying the trumpeter Jimmy McPartland and moving to the States at the end of the war. Her career has been distinguished - she has played with Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and a host of other jazz greats, and her songs have been recorded by Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan. For many years, she has hosted Piano Jazz on NBC radio.

On Tuesday, in the last of John and Alec Dankworth's Jazz Encounters at the Wigmore Hall, McPartland appeared not so much as a guest star as a generous host, introducing most numbers and allowing John and Alec a lot of the limelight. Veteran drummer Allan Ganley had a bit of a job reining in the explosions from his kit, but at least tried to be discreet and contributed some humour besides.

John appeared as saxophonist and clarinettist in only half the programme's 14 numbers, but his son Alec was prominent all the way through. The routine of McPartland handing over to him, often followed by a shorter break from Ganley, became a bit predictable, as if democracy had to be observed at all costs. The expressively drifting "Gone with the Wind" was something of an exception. Alec introduced the tune, John took over on clarinet, the piano had its break and, finally, the tune returned in the bass.

When she wasn't revealing, almost reluctantly, her finely crafted, harmonically subtle style of solo playing, McPartland would supply appreciative little dabs of sound to support the others, her hands hovering thoughtfully over the keys and descending on isolated, whispered chords, sometimes merely a note and, occasionally, a feather-light glissando you could hardly hear. She wasn't too soft, for the essence of her style is to take you into her confidence; the others were too loud.

Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are", McPartland explained, was popular with jazz musicians because of its harmonic richness and the opportunities to introduce little fake fugues, which she demonstrated forthwith by running off a fair chunk of Bach-like counterpoint before swinging into the tune. It ended as it opened, with Alec very deftly joining in on McPartland's terms.

McPartland's own song, "In the Days of Our Love", without the words by Peggy Lee, opened with a melancholy piano solo before the composer let the saxophone unfurl the very beautiful melody. But only rarely did we hear McPartland play something that wasn't an introduction or an elaborated continuation as when her right hand shaped a fair bluesy line in Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood". It would have been good if she had done a bit more of that sort of thing, but then, she was obviously too nice to keep the tunes for herself.