Although we tend to think of the best jazz artists as trailblazing mavericks, there are actually many top tier musicians who played their share of crowd-pleasing pop music. Guitarists like George Benson and Wes Montgomery come to mind, as well as the piano virtuoso Marian McPartland. During her career, Marian put out enough serious jazz records to satisfy the critics, but also quite a few pop and easy listening records to satisfy the bill collectors. Coming early in her career, “..with You in Mind” is one of McPartland’s first efforts in a more commercial direction and finds her walking a nice balance between sophisticated easy listening and lite jazz. The premise of this record is to have McPartland play a standard jazz set, but to have that set backed with a string quartet and harp (the set list also includes some very non-jazz popular ditties). The addition of the harp is bound to attract the kitsch exotica crowd, and “You in Mind” gets close to being a collectable ‘exotica’ record, but not quite.
McPartland’s playing on here is excellent and her refined classical touch mixed with a bluesy sensibility recalls Oscar Peterson. The make or break on this record though are the string arrangements. Subtle strings can work well in jazz, and some of these tunes are handled well, but more often than not the strings on here can be heavy handed and overly dramatic, much like the soundtrack to a sappy melodramatic US movie from this same time period. On the more successful side, “I Remember You” brings the strings down in volume and drama as they play a simple melody that gives Marian something to interact with. On the one McPartland original, title track “With You in Mind”, the strings are given an ambitious score as they interact with the piano in an almost concerto like fashion. Towards the end of the album, “A Ship without a Sail” allows the band to get down a little bit with a swingin, bluesy groove, this is probably the ‘uptempo’ number that the almost apologetic liner notes refer to. All through jazz history, the people who write liner notes try to convince you that a pop jazz record is something much more than that. Its strange that they should predictably display this collective guilt because there should be no shame in an artist producing a good pop jazz record.
I’d be surprised if this was ever put out on CD, the domain of this record is thrift stores and the 50 cent bin at the used record store. As an easy listening/jazz record, “You in Mind” is okay, with some tunes holding up well, while other tunes are undermined by the loud cheezy strings, plus the inclusion of folk tunes like “Greensleeves” doesn’t help. As a collectable exotica record, once again it comes close, some exotica collectors might find the syrupy strings to be a plus that is unique to that time period, while the harp glissandos mixed with McPartland’s light touch are bound to please. If the idea of a ‘jazzy’ version of “Fur Elise” doesn’t horrify you, then maybe this record is for you.