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Orange County Ragtime Society Gets Off To Strong Start

At Steamers Cafe in Fullerton, the Orange County Ragtime Society got off to a start with its first gathering, with music being cranked up on Steamers' Kawai grand piano at 12:30 p.m. and continuing till nearly 4 p.m. At its peak, the audience reached a total of some 25 listeners -- many hearing authentic ragtime performed live for the first time in their lives.

OCRS founder Eric Marchese emceed the afternoon, getting things rolling with Harvey Babcock's 1912 publication "World's Fair Rag." Eric explained that Babcock, a Bay Area composer-pianist, wrote and self-published the rag in San Francisco in anticipation of the upcoming (1915) Panama-Pacific International Exposition. That world's fair that got considerably less attention from the ragtime world than the one held in St. Louis 11 years earlier, of which no fewer than four rags were written and dedicated -- including pieces by Scott Joplin, Tom Turpin and James Scott.

Eric followed with Scott Joplin's first published piece of music, the waltz-song "Please Say You Will," which Joplin had published in 1895 when he and his Texas Medley Quartette had ventured as far north as Syracuse, N.Y., where the piece was published. Eric played a request, his "An Autumn Memory -- Sentimental Rag," which he wrote in 1989, explaining that the piece was intended to capture the wistful memories of a native New Englander for the beauteous seasonal changes reflected by the region's indescribable foliage each fall. He ended his set with the 1907 Joplin masterpiece "Gladiolus Rag."

Eric introduced Carl Sonny Leyland, who warmed up with an improvisatory blues tune, then opened his set with "Yancey's Bugle Call" by Jimmy Yancey. Carl graced the audience with a true piece of ragtime, Joplin's 1899 "Original Rags," very well-played in a jazzy style loaded with blues harmonies and chord figurations. Next, he performed one of his many originals, "Barrelhouse in E," and followed it with the Meade Lux Lewis boogie piece "Tell Your Story."

Carl wrapped up his outstanding set with the "Shreveport Farewell," a stride-style piece by Eurreal "Little Brother" Montgomery, and the "Atlanta Rag," which was popularized by Cow-Cow Davenport but based on Carey Morgan's 1916 "Trilby Rag." Carl's playing suited the piece's very peppy nature.

Bob Pinsker opened his set by commenting that many of the great New York pianists of the '30s and '40s, including Fats Waller and Earl Fatha Hines, "couldn't stand" boogie. At one point, Bob noted, Fats even had it written into his performing contract that he would not be required to play any boogie.

That said, Bob opened his set with an unrecorded Fats tune from 1941, the slow, dreamy, bluesy "Palm Garden." Next were two Willie "The Lion" Smith tunes from the early '40s: "Lament of the Lioness" and "Zig Zag." The latter Bob said was written by The Lion at 9:30 a.m. "after an all-night bender." Unpublished, Bob has painstakingly transcribed the piece and, he said, is still learning it, which didn't daunt him from delivering a terrific rendition.

With another tip of his cap to Carl Sonny Leyland, Bob played Jimmy Blythe's 1924 "Jimmie Blues" which, Bob noted, had a marked boogie-style riff similar to much of the music of "Pine Top" Smith. Bob put a nice bow on his set by noting that James P. Johnson liked the "lowdown blues" sound of much barrelhouse/boogie/blues music. His 1923 "After Hours," Bob said, was a piano Novelty -- "but not like 'Kitten on the Keys.' "

Eric returned to the stage with one of his favorite 1902 Joplin compositions, the rarely-heard "A Breeze from Alabama." Eric noted that Joplin uses the concept of the flatted sixth as the overall tonal plan of the piece, which continually telescopes transitions into the flatted sixth from one section to the next and, at one point, within a short 16-bar section. Next, Eric dedicated his tender performance of Joplin's 1909 "Wall Street Rag" to the victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy in New York City.

Eric brought up Ron Ross, who explained that he loves "Wall Street" because of his career in his "other" life, stockbroker. Ron noted that he only plays his own ragtime pieces. "I love the rags of others, but I can't play 'em." Ron then graced us with thoughtful renderings of four of his own pieces, all featured on his new CD: "Ragtime Song," "Sweet Is the Sound," "Digital Rag" and "Retro Rag."

Paul Kosmala then wowed the crowd with a pensive reading of Joplin's somber, movingly autobiographic 1914 composition "Magnetic Rag," then switched gears for a socko rendering of the Zez Confrey Novelty "Nickel in the Slot." Next was more Joplin, the beautiful syncopated waltz "Bethena" from 1905, and an original composition, Paul's "Bar Point Rag" (its name, Paul explained, comes from the name for the middle column in backgammon. "I was heavy into backgammon at the time," he said). Paul wrapped up his set with a jazzy, improvised reinterpretation of Ron's "Ragtime Song."

Ron then returned to the stage to encore with two more originals, "Sunday Serendipity" and a haunting tango with a beautiful, mysterious title, "Mirella."

Eric threw in a blues performance of his own, the 1914 James White tune "The Original Chicago Blues," and did a jazzy, hot version of Charley Straight's 1914 rag "Humpty Dumpty."

Bob Pinsker encored with a sweetly haunting piece he wrote at the age of 16, which he titled "Alyssum Rag." Bob explained that because it was a Joplin-like tune, he wanted a title that was a flower or plant. "All the good ones were taken," Bob said, so he presented his mother a list of flowers and asked her to select one. "All the ones she chose, Joplin had already used," so Bob settled on Alyssum. Given the piece's sweet nature, the title fits: the alyssum is a Mediterranean ornamental having white or yellow flowers.

Switching to Novelty, Bob played Jack Wilson's 1934 Novelty-style piece "Phantom Fingers," which features some very "modernistic" harmonies, then ended his encore set with another tune from Willie The Lion, the sweet, reflective "Echoes of Spring."

Carl Leyland encored with a wonderful original called "Pancake Charlie"; an improvisation inspired by Pine Top's boogie; the Cow Cow Davenport tune "Back in the Alley," and a hot, jazzy version of James P. Johnson's masterful "Carolina Shout."

Bob Pinsker then hit the keyboard with a rarely-heard Roy Bargy tune, "A Blue Streak," wrapping up a very successful afternoon of piano music.

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