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March ’03 OCRS boasts three world premieres

The first OCRS gathering of 2003, held at Steamers on the first day of March, boasted not one, not two, but three world premieres of new ragtime compositions, plus a fourth new piece that had just been premiered at the venerable Rose Leaf Ragtime society.

Bill Mitchell kicked things off with Albert Gumble’s fine yet rarely heard “Bolo Rag,” one of the many great piano rags to come out of Tin Pan Alley. The 1908 piece is one of Bill’s standards; it can be found on his wonderful album “Ragtime Recycled.” Next was Bill’s masterful interpretation of his favorite James Scott rag, the 1909 masterpiece “Grace and Beauty.” Bill wrapped up his set with the Chas. L. Johnson standard “Dill Pickles,” a huge hit in 1906, giving the final refrain of the B theme a truly jazz-oriented ending.

Eric Marchese followed the Johnson piece, which capitalized on the “three-over-four” pattern, with the next big rag hit to utilize three-over-four: Botsford’s “Black and White Rag” (1908). He then invited Phil Cannon to join him on two Joplin tunes: “Paragon Rag” and “The Entertainer.”

Bob Pinsker gave us Morton’s “Sweet Substitute,” along with some choice background on the piece. During the late 1930s, Bob reported, Jelly was “plotting his comeback. He was always plotting his comeback.” The tune was one of several that Morton’s friend Roy Carew was able to get into print. It features loads of “blue” notes and daring harmonies, and Bob played it with terrific style and a very “uptown” New York (read: Harlem) feeling.

Bob prefaced his next selection with some historical background on the many great “animal” fad dances of the teens, starting with the Grizzly Bear. That hugely popular San Francisco version of the turkey trot, Bob noted, was at the time “considered very rude” by cultured society, giving rise to the 1912 ragtime song “Stop That Bear Cat, Sadie!” by popular vaudeville performer Gene Green (who later hired a young Charley Straight as his accompanist). Bob followed with a beautiful rendition of Scott’s late-teens masterpiece “Troubadour Rag,” then more advanced pianistics, this time courtesy of Rube Bloom, with a 1931 piece called, simply, “Blues” (from Bloom’s “Moods" suite of the same year). The slow-tempo piece offers walking bass figurations and daring harmonies (for its time), and a middle theme in the minor that evokes a genuine “Harlem” sound.

Andrew Barrett took the stage and announced two “pickle” rags for his set: “Dill Pickles” and the 1907 Theron Bennett tune “Sweet Pickles.” Andrew offered some impressive improvisations on the trio of the former, and demonstrated flawless technique on the latter, a fascinating piece which has varying rhythms and harmonies and interludes in the minor key. He gave a true “rideout” performance to the great final section of this rag, by no means an easy one to play.

New OCRS member Jeffrey Briar offered his rendering of the difficult Robert Hampton piece “Cataract Rag,” a rarely played piece of vintage ragtime from 1914 that demonstrates the genre’s continued fascination with water seemingly begun with Joplin’s “The Cascades.” This virtuoso piece requires precise fingering, with classical-style figurations reminiscent of Czerny, and Jeffrey pulled it off in grand style. He then followed with the first of the afternoon’s world premieres – a new piano rag called “The Joys of Monogamy Rag” which, he noted, “is one of the only rags to use the middle pedal of the piano.” Of the piece’s title, he said “there’s a story behind it – but I won’t tell you what it is!” A joyous-sounding piece, it incorporates numerous elements, from three-over-four to use of the minor key to some startling key changes.

Stan Long took the stage, offering a set of two hit Charles N. Daniels tunes which he said he had “decoded” of the recently released Nan Bostick-Tom Brier CD featuring Daniels’ music. First was the 1898 tune “Margery,” which put Daniels on the map; then, the even bigger hit from 1901, “Hiawatha.” Stan played both well, noting that “Margery” is technically a march and not a rag, and that “Hiawatha” inspired the so-called “Indian intermezzo” craze, despite the fact that its title came from the name of a small Kansas town (and not from the American Indian of Longfellow's poem) and that it was inspired by the persistent chugging sound of a locomotive. Stan gave very accurate “decodings” of both pieces (he doesn’t read sheet music), including playing the melody line of the “Hiawatha” trio in his left hand! He then closed his set with a short original boogie number, “in honor of Sonny Leyland,” who was unable to make it to Steamers for the afternoon. Stan’s boogie was great, with lots of walking bass in the left hand part.

After a brief break, Eric opened the second half of the afternoon with “The Sugar House,” a 1994 original inspired by the Holly Sugar factory, a historic ragtime-era building in Santa Ana that was demolished (despite the efforts of preservationists to save the structure) during the late 1970s. The piece, a classic-style rag, has a gentle, “sweet” opening theme, works in the minor key in the second theme, has a quiet, single-note melody line in its trio and ends with a joyous theme wherein both hands play in parallel for the first 12 measures.

Nancy Kleier took the stage and announced that she and her husband were celebrating their 40th anniversary the following day and that her theme for the day revolved around this milestone. Her theme: “These are all things a woman would like to receive for her 40th anniversary,” she exclaimed with a chuckle while introducing her first selection: “Diamonds and Rubies” by Nellie Stokes. This wonderful 1909 rag has many pleasingly high grace notes, interesting chord figures and a lovely coda. Next up: “Rubies and Pearls – A Precious Rag,” one of 9 rags the prolific Harry Austin Tierney saw published between February and August of 1911. To wrap up her set – and to acknowledge the unlikelihood of her receiving said precious gems – Nancy played “Blue Moon,” a beautiful foxtrot by Max Kortlander and Lee S. Roberts, which Roberts published in Chicago in 1918. Much of the piece is in the minor key, creating “mysterious”-sounding harmonies, and blue notes are used liberally. Nancy played the piece like a champ – and like someone elated over a long and successful marriage!

Tying in with this idea, Ron Ross’s turn brought us “something old and something new.” The “old” was Ron’s 2001 masterpiece “Joplinesque,” a wonderful rag-tango that mixes older stylistic ideas of vintage ragtime with some more contemporary musical concepts. The piece is thoughtful, but has a quietly upbeat overtone. Ron’s “new” piece was just written this year and has only been performed for an audience on one other occasion. It’s the “Acrosonic Rag.” Named for Ron’s piano, it features his distinctive gift for inventive melodic lines.

Beautifully decked out in period costume and enjoying his first time at OCRS, Les Soper took the stage at Steamers and offered the great Luckey Roberts opus from 1913, “The Junk Man Rag.” Les gave the piece a wonderfully spirited and expressive interpretation and outstanding touch, tempo and technique. Les then expressed his longtime admiration for the compositions of Glenn Jenks, recounting how he had first heard Glenn’s music at a WCRF event in the late ’80s, wrote Glenn a fan letter and sent a check for $35, asking for as much of Glenn’s music as $35 would buy. “He sent me a pile of music,” Les said. One of his favorites was the 1988 “Elegiac Rag,” which Les proceeded to perform. Cast mostly in the minor, the A theme is haunting and moving; the B strain offers intriguing chord progressions and voices the melody line primarily in the left hand. The piece has a typical Jenks “rideout” for its D theme, which then leads back into the thoughtful B theme and an elegant coda. Beautiful, melodic and deeply moving, the piece was done ample justice by Les’s rendition.

Bill Mitchell and Phil Cannon then took the stage together for a duet of “Peacherine Rag,” taken at a nice easy tempo. Judging by Phil’s expressive face and movements, it’s obvious that he really feels Joplin’s wonderful music while performing it. Bill then presented a wonderful solo set of New Orleans tunes, to honor the weekend’s many Mardi Gras revelries in the great musical city. Bill opened his Crescent City set with the now-traditional “Basin Street Blues” and followed with two great Morton tunes, “The Pearls” and “New Orleans Joys.” Bill gave the latter piece a true “Mortonesque” sound, with spirited bass work and bubbly descending figures in the melody line. As usual, Bill gave all three pieces all he had, and really wowed the crowd at Steamers.

Eric decided to chime in with a world premiere of his newest piano composition, a slow drag titled “Out of Time,” written in early February 2003. The piece opens with a quietly thoughtful theme, followed by a main section both intense and pensive. The trio mirrors both strains, then yields to the main section once more, which ends the piece on a wistful note. Jeffrey Briar then encored with a piece off of his CD, W.C. Handy’s 1914 masterpiece: “The St. Louis Blues.”

Andrew Barrett encored with one of two ragtime pieces this 15-year-old has composed over the last few months. He announced that this was the more recent of the two and “the one I think you most deserve to hear.” He also noted that the piece includes “a very strange key change” at the midpoint, from the key of F major to E-flat major. Called “Frequent Flyer Rag,” the piece really flew under Andrew’s fingers, a very peppy “pop”-style rag. Its second theme is a most catchy riff section; an exciting upward run ends the C theme, and the bridge from C, for a reprise of that foot-tapping B theme, is a most creative way to modulate from E-flat back into the piece’s home key of F major. Young Master Barrett is already a considerably talented ragtime pianist; with his ventures into composing, he’s going to make a noise in the ragtime world!

Bob Pinsker encored with a great song number by James P. Johnson originally written for the musical film “Stormy Weather” (starring Lena Horne and Fats Waller, among others) but not used in the film: “There’s No Two Ways About Love,” which Bob performed and sang with skill and ease. He wound up with a masterful rendition of Blake’s “Charleston Rag” that really ripped.

Les Soper also encored, sending everyone home with smiles on their faces with a beautifully paced version of the 1904 Scott Joplin masterpiece, “The Cascades.”

This wonderful afternoon offered a total of 35 pieces in a time frame of just over three hours. Our next one will be at Steamers on Saturday, May 3, from 1 till 4:30 p.m. Don’t miss it!

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