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Ragging up Rockin’ Taco Cantina for the first time

For the June 2003 meet, the OCRS broke precedent by making Rockin’ Taco Cantina in downtown Fullerton a new alternate destination for Orange County’s ragtime fans. The venue’s primary advantage: Two grand pianos in place at all times, allowing for more four-, six- and even eight-handed renditions of the great ragtime literature. This was the first time OCRS had gathered anywhere besides Steamers Jazz Club; the turnout of musicians — 11 in all — was a formidable lineup of southern California ragtime talent and the audience showing was impressive. And although things didn’t get underway until nearly 1:30, a total of 40 pieces was performed.

Emcee Eric Marchese opened with an early James Scott tune. His original choice was "A Summer Breeze," for two reasons — this was the start of summer, and this year is the 1903 piece’s centennial year. But, as he explained, he liked the very upbeat, raggy "The Fascinator," from the same year, much better, so rendered that piece instead.

Eric continued with the often-stormy, often patriotic-sounding 1907 Joplin masterpiece "The Nonpareil," then ended his set with his newest composition. Called "Quiddity Rag," the piece opens with two folk rag-style themes, then segues into a trio inspired by the sounds of rhythm-and-blues music.

Andrew Barrett then took to one of the two pianos and delivered the lovely mood tune "The Legend of Lonesome Lake," a 1922 piece by Eastwood Lane from the composer’s six-piece suite "The Adirondacks Sketches." Andrew followed with Lamb’s immortal "Top Liner Rag," a tough piece handled admirably by this young pianist.

Bob Pinsker gave us the full and complete version, off the 1914 score, of Euday Bowman’s ubiquitious and now-classic "Twelfth Street Rag." He followed this with "Karnival on the Keys," a piece by Willie The Lion Smith, from a 1945 transcription by Harold Potter. Bob said the piece is described as "a modernistic piano novelty," and his performance is very much so, sounding like something from the mid-1930s, with numerous inventive modulations. Then, more Lion, with "Concentratin'." Bob said the piece was recorded by its composer in different ways over a twenty-year period — either rhythmically or rhapsodically, depending on The Lion’s mood. Bob emphasized both aspects but leaned more to the melodic, with tricky interplay between both hands. Like "Karnival," the piece has very "modern" harmonies typical of the composer.

Les Soper made another OCRS appearance, launching his set with an expressive reading of Joplin’s lovely and gentle 1904 intermezzo "The Chrysanthemum." Les followed with one of Joplin’s all-time greats, "Fig Leaf Rag" (1908), then a modern masterpiece: Glenn Jenks’ passionate, haunting opus "Sosua" (1988), emphasizing the piece’s lyricism.

Ron Ross unveiled two of his biggest hits off his CD "Ragtime Renaissance": "Joplinesque" (subtitled "a Gringo Tango") and "Retro Rag," a bouncy piece with a lyrical trio, played in tribute to Bill Mintz (the rag was his favorite).

Brad Kay then took to the stage and delivered Fats Waller’s "African Ripples," which has a jazzy, Harlem sound. Brad took the piece from a lyrical opening to a faster tempo in the more rhythmic sections, to an all-out Stride-style ending.

Vocalist Pamela Eisenberg then joined Brad and belted out the comical lyrics to "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" (Muir, Clarke and Abrahams). Brad then noted that he had tracked about a half-dozen songs by James Reese Europe, including "I’ve Got the Finest Man" from 1912. Ms. Eisenberg then delivered a vocal rendering of the song’s delightful lyrics, with accompaniment by Brad.

Eric returned to the stage and, with Jeffrey Briar at the second piano, the audience got four-handed versions of "St. Louis Rag," "The Easy Winners" and "Pine Apple Rag." Jeffrey then soloed on Morton’s lively "King Porter Stomp," one of Jelly Roll’s best and most famous, with typical (for the composer) licks in the treble and a great striding bass.

Inspired by this stomp, Brad Kay delivered two more: Fats Waller's "Midnight Stomp" and (by request from an audience member) Duke Ellington’s "Jubilee Stomp." Brad said the former was well-delivered by Waller and an orchestra in 1929, and indeed, Brad’s performance offers many Fats touches, including a Stride bass and breaks in the melody. By contrast, the Ellington number is very jazzy and modern and, in Brad’s hands, a driving piano piece.

Nancy Kleier opened her set with "Welcome Rag" (Jager), which has a catchy theme that opens and closes the piece with a Novelty-style break. She closed with two vintage rags: "Smiling Sadie," a 1905 rag by Archie Scheu, and Jay Roberts’ 1911 "Joy Rag."

Eric tried to stump the crowd (and succeeded) with the rare 1906 Louis Chauvin tune "Babe, It’s Too Long Off" (a ragtime song with lyrics by Elmer Bowman). He followed it with the hit 1912 dance tune "Ballin’ the Jack," asking if the audience could figure out the connection between this number and the Chauvin piece. The connection: Chris Smith, the composer of "Ballin’ the Jack," got his start working with Elmer Bowman. (Bob Pinsker got the gold star for announcing this fact.)

Stan Long delivered an original short boogie, Daniels’ early hit "Hiawatha, A Summer Idyll" and closed his set with "Goldenrod Rag." Frank Sano then gave us a medley of old-time songs (including "Million-Dollar Baby"), followed by an original piano piece called "Pet Dander Rag."

The afternoon ended with numerous encores — first, Les Soper, with a measured "Grace & Beauty"; Ron Ross with another fine original, "Acrosonic Rag" (featuring many melodic breaks) and Andrew Barrett with George Cobb’s "Chromatic Capers." He described this 1925 piece as "half Stride, half Novelty," but its winding treble and wild harmonies categorize it as primarily in the Novelty vein. It’s an intricate and quite challenging piece, and another fine job by this young musician!

Bob Pinsker joined Master Barrett on the second piano and the duo delivered a four-handed version of that ragtime perennial "Dill Pickles," then Bob closed out the afternoon with three outstanding, and quite diverse, solos: Bolcom’s jazz-influenced 1970 piece "Graceful Ghost," with its many dissonances, haunting main theme and romantic trio; Blake’s immortal "Charleston Rag"; and Blythe’s "Jimmie Blues."

Our next gathering is Saturday, Aug. 23, right back at Rockin’ Taco. We’ll get underway at 1 p.m. and keep on rockin’ till roughly 4:30, so come one, come all!

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