Here is a mismatch if there ever was one -- or so it would appear. The always-elegant, always-spacious and graceful Marian McPartland, queen of the NPR program Piano Jazz, playing live with bluesed-out bebop reveler Willie Pickens in a live setting. But that's as far as contradictions go. This pair knows how to put together a program of piano duets and stress their differences rather than their similarities. It is as simple as sitting down Earl Hines and Fats Waller at the keys and telling them to go for it, that's how different these styles are. But somehow it works, and works so well that the listener will be stunned to know this was a one-off. Of nine tracks here, there are five duets: "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Along Came Betty," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It ain't Got That Swing)," "Night and Day," and "Just One of Those Things." Each player takes a pair of solo; McPartland does "Close Your Eyes" and "Autumn Nocturne" and Pickens plays "Spring Is Here" and "It's Only a Paper Moon." The interplay between the two is unique and the individual voices are heard in the channels: there's the strident, bluesy, dark, insistent tone of Pickens in the right channel, always ready to bust out into something, and the more reserved, and yes, more traditionally elegant McPartland in the left. But what comes across in their exchanges (check the opener, "Ain't Misbehavin'," for evidence) is how much these two try to weave together their disparateness without compromise; they meet in the striated harmonies and slip away from each other in the solos, coming back together in filled-out melodies with gorgeous painted backdrops of chords and tone clusters. It's a glorious pairing, full of surprises and natural, free-flowing musical interplay where magnets attract just enough to push away and leave room in between for the listener. It should be noted that Pickens steals the show in his two solos, however. In fact, he's like James Booker or Professor Longhair, wiping the floor with a bunch of young hopefuls at the weekly cutting contest on the Queen Mary in New Orleans.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek