Marian McPartland has never been what you would call an adventurous jazz pianist; she contents herself and her audience with a breezy but straightforward competence in the best Brubeck tradition. Her music won't startle or disarm you with sudden dissonances or complicated syncopations, which has made her live series on National Public Radio one of the most popular jazz programs in history. And if this unapologetic dependability has on past albums given way to workmanlike predictability, on this year's "Personal Choice" it's embroidered by a fresh confidence, bolstered most notably by McPartland's new bassist, Steve La Spina.
La Spina manages to add the playful touches McPartland needs without stealing the show. With drummer Jake Hann's old-fashioned brushwork rounding out the trio, the result is a more attractive balance of styles than McPartland had ever achieved on record. La Spina is fearless enough to tackle Oscar Pettiford's "Tricotism," for example, and McPartland is self-assured enough to let it remain primarily a bass tour-de-force. La Spina returns the favor on the opening cut, "I Hear a Rhapsody," where he unobtrusively supports McPartland's sentimental flights of fancy. And on such songs as Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," and Harold Arlen and Truman Capote's "A Sleepin' Bee," the two combine wits to create an infectious mischief that never escapes McPartland's control.
The most interesting track, surprisingly enough, is Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Meditation." Jobim standards are almost obligatory these days on mainstream American jazz albums, usually thrown in as a sop to those who like to think of themselves as jazz fans but can't let go of their pop preferences. But here, McPartland transforms the old lounge standby into a truly expressive exercise -- again, with help from La Spina, whose simple six-note bass invention breathes fresh life into the piece.
Clearly, McPartland herself prefers impeccability to risk: Note how, on "In Your Own Sweet Way," she stubbornly removes the flatted fifths that Miles Davis always used to give the song a contradictory edge, carrying it right back to Brubeck's ingenuous phrasing.
Still, "Personal Choice" is McPartland's best offering since "From This Moment On," and if the eight songs here aren't necessarily groundbreaking in terms of interpretation, neither are they foregone conclusions. MARIAN McPARTLAND TRIO -- "Personal Choice" (Concord CJ-202). Appearing Friday at 8:30 at Wolf Trap.