Roberta Piket – One for Marian: Celebrating Marian McPartland

Roberta Piket Cover

Artist: Roberta Piket
Title: One for Marian: Celebrating Marian McPartland
Release Date: June 10th, 2016
Release Number: TNR-009

Liner Notes by Bob Bernotas
Artist’s Notes by Roberta Piket

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Featuring: Roberta Piket piano Steve Wilson alto saxophone and flute, Virginia Mayhew tenor saxophone and clarinet, Bill Mobley trumpet and flugelhorn, Harvie S bass, Billy Mintz drums and percussion

01 Ambiance
02 One for Marian
03 In the Days of Our Love
04 Twilight World (excerpt)
05 Threnody (excerpt)
06 Time and Time Again (excerpt)
07 Saying Goodbye
08 Kaleidoscope

Piano legend Marian McPartland was eulogized in 2013 as a supremely elegant and accomplished jazz stylist who gracefully conversed and collaborated with a vast array of fellow improvisers from her perch as a beloved public radio host. But her creative output as a composer tends to be overlooked, a situation that should be rectified by Roberta Piket’s brilliantly realized One for Marian: Celebrating Marian McPartland. Produced for Thirteenth Note Records by jazz veteran Todd Barkan, it’s a revelatory sextet project that shines a warm, loving light on an extraordinary but under-appreciated body of work.

“Marian always felt regretful that her tunes weren’t played more,” Piket says. “She felt a little unrecognized in that regard. It’s kind of mysterious why some tunes don’t become standards. She wrote so many great tunes.”

An uncommonly probing improviser in both free and straight-ahead settings, Piket has garnered considerable attention in recent years with a pair of enthralling solo piano recordings. But on One for Marian she returns to a larger ensemble format which she explored so memorably on 2011’s Sides, Colors (Thirteenth Note). The album’s cast couldn’t be better equipped to interpret Piket’s lush arrangements and McPartland’s melodically charged compositions. Featuring Steve Wilson on alto sax and flute, Virginia Mayhew on tenor sax and clarinet, Bill Mobley on trumpet and flugelhorn, bassist Harvie S, drummer and percussionist Billy Mintz, and special guest vocalist Karrin Allyson on one track, One for Marian grew out of a concert that Piket put together for the 2014 Wall Street Jazz Festival.

“Peggy Stern invited me to close the festival, and she thought it made sense to have an ensemble bigger than a trio,” Piket says. “I hit upon the idea of arranging some of Marian’s tunes. I like the sextet format. You can get a lot of different colors and textures with three horns, but you don’t lose the small group intimacy and interaction.”

The album opens with “Ambiance,” a haunting melody that Piket interpreted beautifully on her last album, the 2015 Thirteenth Note release Emanation (Solo: Volume 2). Full of thick, mysterious harmonies, her luscious arrangement foregrounds McPartland’s fascination with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter’s 1960s Blue Note recordings. “In the Days of Our Love,” a McPartland tune so lovely that Peggy Lee felt inspired to write lyrics for it, features exquisite solos by Mobley and Mayhew, who croon the bittersweet melody with their horns. Karrin Allyson, one of the finest jazz singers on the scene, persuasively evokes the pause-between-breaths liminal realm of “Twilight World,” McPartland’s collaboration with Johnny Mercer, in a ravishing duet with Piket.

Piket recorded McPartland’s loving portrait of Mary Lou Williams, “Threnody,” on her debut album in a trio context, while this quartet version showcases Wilson’s expressive flute work. “Time and Time Again” opens as a rumba duo, with Mayhew’s tenor flowing over Mintz’s conga playing. Taken at a sensuous tempo, the piece takes on striking textures as Mobley’s muted trumpet blends with Mayhew and Wilson’s saxophones and woodwinds.

Piket also offers two pieces of her own in honor of McPartland. The title track is a briskly swinging number with an intricate melodic line that features some particularly tasty drum work by Mintz, an immensely resourceful drummer who can groove with abandon. “Saying Goodbye”, while not composed for Marian, is an elegiac caress of a farewell. Fittingly, Piket closes the album with an up-tempo blues. Her lively arrangement of McPartland’s “Kaleidoscope”, the theme song for NPR’s Piano Jazz, leaves listeners wanting more, while summoning the salty spirit of jazz’s grande dame.

One reason the album feels so fully realized and cohesive is the deep ties shared by the core group of players. Piket and S have played together extensively in Mayhew’s band over the years, while S and Mintz have collaborated widely, including a trio led by piano master Alan Broadbent. And of course Piket and Mintz are one of jazz’s power couples. She recruited Mobley and Wilson for the project, and they delivered as consummate professionals and stellar improvisers.

“Bill is one of the unsung heroes of jazz trumpet, a very high level musician with a ton of craft,” Piket says. “He’s such a melodic soloist with a great warm sound. I’ve known Steve Wilson for many years, but hadn’t been in touch for a long time. He was so sweet and enthusiastic. He’s a stunning virtuosic soloist. I love his aggressive approach to the flute on ‘Threnody.’”

One for Marian is something of a departure for Piket as her first album dedicated to the work of another composer. From the early stages of her career, she’s distinguished herself as a gifted writer (she placed second in the 1993 Thelonious Monk BMI Composers Competition). Over the years, Piket has performed as a sidewoman with many of jazz’s greatest figures, including David Liebman, Rufus Reid, Michael Formanek, Lionel Hampton, Mickey Roker, Eliot Zigmund, Benny Golson, and Ted Curson. She’s also toured and performed with some of the most interesting musicians in European and American improvised music, such as drummers Klaus Kugel and Billy Mintz, and saxophonists Petras Vysniauskas, and Louis Belogenis.

Born in Queens in 1965, Piket inherited a passion for music from both of her parents. Her father was the Austrian composer Frederick Piket, who made significant contributions to both the musical liturgy of Reform Judaism and the concert hall with works performed by the New York Philharmonic under conductor Dimtri Metropolis. From her mother, Cynthia, she absorbed the glories of the American Songbook, learning by ear the tunes of Porter, Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, and Berlin (as well as accompanying lyrics).

A chance encounter with an album by bebop pianist Walter Bishop Jr. (1961’s Speak Low) ignited her love of jazz piano trio, and she went about learning all the tunes on the record (including the evergreens “Alone Together,” “Milestones,” and “On Green Dolphin Street”). Around the same time, she became fascinated by the 20th-century classical recordings from her late father’s collection. She attended the joint five-year double-degree program at Tufts University and New England Conservatory, graduating with a degree in computer science at the former and a degree in jazz piano from the latter. After a year as a software engineer, Piket realized that her calling was music, and she returned to New York, where an NEA grant set her up to study with pianist Richie Beirach.

Drawn to both straight-ahead and free-improvisation situations, Piket made her recording debut on an album by jazz legend Lionel Hampton. Around the same time, Marian McPartland heard her at the Thelonious Monk Composers Competition and invited her to appear as a featured guest on NPR’s Piano Jazz, Piket’s first of three appearances on the show. Beginning with Piket’s first recording under her own name, 1996’s Unbroken Line (Criss Cross) with Donny McCaslin and Michael Formanek, she’s recorded McPartland’s music.

Never content to repeat herself, Piket has pursued a disparate array of projects, including the electric band Alternating Current, the free improvisation trio with Mintz and saxophonist Louis Belogenis, and the neo-classical-meets-free-improv Nabokov Project, which sets poems by Vladimir Nabokov to music for piano, violin, mezzo-soprano, percussion, and speaker. In recent years she’s focused particularly on solo piano performance, a development she attributes directly to McPartland’s Piano Jazz.

“I realized I had spent so much time focused on trio that I had neglected my solo playing,” Piket says. “The main thing that playing solo forced me to think about is concentration and focus. Playing solo has made me a much better musician. I’m so much more in the music. Billy also sets a great example for that.”

Piket occasionally performs on B-3 organ, leads her own groups at Smalls and Mezzrow, and tours internationally. She has written several big band compositions, and is also a self-described “closet singer.” With One for Marian, she makes an incontrovertible case for the enduring beauty of McPartland’s compositions.

“I always felt her support,” Piket says. “I would keep her abreast of my gigs and she would always send me notes after I sent her a CD. Marian was so generous and thoughtful. She sent me a copy of Alec Wilder’s book American Popular Song with a note that read ‘In case you can’t think of what to play, just open this book. Love, Marian.’” With this album Piket has performed a similar service for her fellow musicians.

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