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The Sweet and Lovely Legacy of Marian McPartland

I wouldn’t want to be Jon Weber. He is a jazz pianist of superhuman ability; he has an encyclopedic command of music history (and not just jazz history, but classical and rock history, as well); and he plays well with others, as he has shown not only in the clubs but in the radio interviews with fellow musicians that he has done as one of the main back-up hosts of the long-running NPR radio series Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. Earlier this year, NPR announced that McPartland, now 93, would no longer be taping new programs. Weber, who seems to me about half McPartland’s age, has started taping episodes for a new NPR jazz series that will focus on musicians on the creative edge of the genre. As one of McPartland’s deepest admirers and most loyal acolytes, Weber has to know that comparisons with his mentor are both futile and unavoidable. Still, the angle of his program-in-development seems, in concept, a healthy break from the historical orientation of so much jazz programming on the air and in the concert halls today.

There was a celebration of McPartland and Piano Jazz at the lovely, judiciously programmed, and ridiculously named Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex this Monday, and the occasion served as a kind of coming-out party for Weber, who helped organize the event and who was the only musician on the bill to play two numbers, including a duet with McPartland herself. Facing each other at two grand pianos set up curve-to-curve, McPartland and Weber played a gently unfurling duet of Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned.” McPartland played delicately, but with imagination, taking two solos (in different keys) and slyly dropping in a quote from “Chatanooga Choo Choo.” Weber followed with open ears and careful footwork. McPartland seems to have found a successor who, like her, knows not only how to play but how to listen.

The night was rich with piano jazz by artists who have been inspired by McPartland’s musicianship, generosity, and unyielding advocacy of their art: among them, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Dado Moroni, Larry Willis, Chris Bowers (winner of the Monk competition this year), and Bill Charlap, whose solo performance of Kern’s “All the Things You Are” was simply, bluntly, one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard. McPartland played only one song herself: “Sweet and Lovely,” the perfect title for its irreplaceable performer.