Marian McPartland is one of those rare jazz musicians who has never developed what critics call a "mature" style. With her insatiable musical appetite -- her influences range from Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington to Bill Evans and Chick Corea -- the 76-year-old pianist still considers herself a work-in-progress. Since she began recording for Concord in the late '70s, many of her best albums have focused on overlooked composers; her volumes on Benny Carter, Mary Lou Williams and Billy Strayhorn are full of sharp musical insights. But "Silent Pool," her latest CD, puts a well-deserved spotlight on her own body of work, and fulfills her longtime ambition of recording with strings.
"Silent Pool" is a felicitous pairing of two unique musical sensibilities, with Alan Broadbent's string arrangements sharing center stage with McPartland's lyrical compositions and beautifully nuanced piano work. A brilliant pianist and composer himself, and a founding member of Charlie Haden's noir-inspired Quartet West, Broadbent has created an ideal setting for McPartland's compositions. His arrangements caress McPartland's melodies, remaining unafraid of her music's measured emotionality while never crossing the line into false sentiment or sweetness. His use of cellos in the introduction to "Ambiance" is unspeakably lovely, as is his deft borrowing from Debussy for the title track. "Twilight World," a tune often recorded by other musicians, is another highlight, played here with a dreamy, ethereal feeling.
Best known for her National Public Radio show, "Piano Jazz," McPartland has interviewed an incredible array of musicians, playing duets with her subjects and holding forth with her wonderfully fey personality. Born Margaret Marian Turner in Windsor, England, McPartland fell in love with jazz listening to the BBC as a teenager in the 1930s. She met and married Chicago cornetist Jimmy McPartland during the war and gained a reputation among other musicians while working on New York's 52nd Street. Where Jimmy was a Bix Beiderbecke disciple, a traditional jazz purist, Marian absorbed new musical ideas -- swing, bebop, bossa nova and various strands of modern jazz all found their way into her sound.
Always open to new musical situations, McPartland jumped at the opportunity to record with strings, a dream only a handful of jazz musicians have fulfilled due to the prohibitive expense. With "Silent Pool," she has produced an album that rates among the best of such projects, joining such jazz legends as Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and Ben Webster. Recording with strings used to be considered a way to popularize improvisors; with the already beloved McPartland, it's simply one more path for a tireless musical explorer.