Joyce Collins On Piano Jazz

Joyce Collins.

hide captionJoyce Collins.

Courtesy of the artist

Set List

"Turnaround" (O. Coleman)

"Marjolane" (J. Collins)

"All Blues" (M. Davis)

"Blue in Green" (M. Davis)

"On Green Dolphin Street" (B. Kaper, N. Washington)

"The Job Application" (A. Bergman, M. Bergman, B. Goldenberg)

"Free Piece" (M. McPartland, J. Collins)

"With You in Mind" (M. McPartland)

"Falling in Love with Love" (R. Rodgers, L. Hart)

Joyce Collins began playing piano professionally as a teenager in Reno, Nev. After moving to Los Angeles in the late '50s, Collins continued to work in Reno as well as Las Vegas, where she became the first woman to conduct a resort-show band. She also worked in film and television, spending 10 years in the band on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and also on Bob Newhart's shows. Her albums recorded with vocalist Bill Henderson, Their Street of Dreams and Tribute to Johnny Mercer, were Grammy nominees. In the '70s, Collins began teaching piano and continued to write and arrange extensively. She was a gifted yet underrated arranger, and in her singing she had a knack for dead-on interpretation of the lyricist's intention. Joyce Collins died earlier this year at age 79 after a long illness.

On this Piano Jazz session from 2002, Collins plays and sings on a set of classic tunes including "All Blues," "On Green Dolphin Street," "Falling in Love With Love" and her own "Marjolane."

"She and I would have lunch together whenever I visited California," host Marian McPartland says, remembering Collins. "She sent me the music to a fantastic tune ['Marjolane'] that I still play once in a while. She was a really fabulous piano player."

Collins opens the session with her take on a perennial Piano Jazz favorite: Ornette Coleman's "Turnaround." She stretches out on the blues form of the piece, with a walking bass line deep in the keyboard throughout. Collins follows with "Marjolane," a sophisticated, underplayed tune if ever there was one. With changes that recall Billy Strayhorn and chord structures reminiscent of Bill Evans, the song proves Collins to be a formidable composer and pianist.

"Sometimes I play this with a trio in tempo, like a big band," Collins says. "But I also like to play sections of it free, where it fades like a mirage."

"It reminds me of that same thing with Herbie Hancock's 'Maiden Voyage,' " McPartland says. "It never ends."

The session continues with a pair of Miles Davis compositions, incidentally performed by Bill Evans on the historic Kind of Blue sessions: a duet for "All Blues" and McPartland's solo take on the ballad "Blue in Green," a tune believed by many to be an Evans composition.

"It's only six bars, but the tune is so haunting," McPartland says. "I think it's really the essence of [Evans]."

"My favorite of the shows you've done is the Bill Evans show," Collins adds, referring to a 1979 Piano Jazz session.

Collins demonstrates her vocal skills in "The Job Application" from the made-for-television film Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. TV movie music is dodgy material for the usual jazz setting, but Collins makes it work, with her fragile voice masterfully delivering the tender lyric, sung from the viewpoint of a middle-aged widow filling out a job application for the first time. Each clever line leads with the usual application language: "Education: high-school class of '39 / College: no, that's always been a regret of mine." The tune proves that a well-crafted lyric delivered by a considerate vocalist can be glorious in its own right, regardless of its original use.

The two pianists close the session with an up-tempo duet of "Falling in Love With Love," by Rodgers and Hart. Collins and McPartland swing on the tune like a well-oiled machine, exchanging bars and extending the theme to the tail-end of the tune.

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