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March 2007 OCRS: Multiple styles and new performers at Mo’s Music Store

Back to The Cave at Mo's Music Store, the March 24, 2007 OCRS drew roughly 30 attendees and several high school and college students who wandered in and out from the weekend-long Fullerton College Jazz Festival. That 10 of the audience members were also musicians didn't negate the fact that this was among the most musically diverse musicales we've had in a long time, with practically every form and genre of vintage and contemporary ragtime represented by the core group of stalwarts plus some new performers making their first appearances at OCRS.

With MC Eric Marchese running late, Vincent Johnson and Stan Long got things rolling with two-piano versions of "Peacherine" and "Maple Leaf Rag," Vincent on the Howard (Baldwin) baby grand, Stan on the Hobart full upright (or "cabinet grand," as its logo so grandly proclaims). Vincent then continued with a solo set of three pieces, beginning with a slow-tempo rendition of Harry Belding's fine 1913 rag "Good Gravy," lending the piece nice embellishments and a forceful ending. That only two of Belding's rags are published, Vincent reminded us, is our loss. He continued with a piece "related to ragtime": a pleasing, jazzy arrangement of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" (Styne-Robin), complete with walking bass, fill-ins and other ragtime licks. Vincent closed with "Lime Swallowtail," the second of what will eventually be three rags of a "butterfly suite." Noting the inspiration of Billy Mayerl, Vincent said the piece is "progressing," offering a different ending than what was heard at OCRS last month. The first theme features descending triplets; the second, ascending, but in tighter groupings, and the trio (the newest section) uses a walking bass plus a nice variant on the echo effect.

Before starting her set, Shirley Case noted how in more than 30 years as a piano teacher, she has never seen a "new" key system for piano, until a recent article in the Orange County Register by Teri Sforza (who did a comprehensive advance feature on RagFest '06 that made the front page) with the headline "Play a high L, please" dissected a new system in which none of the notes are assigned "sharps" or "flats," instead each one given a corresponding alphabetic letter, 'A' through 'L.' The system’s creator? A Fullerton guitarist whose instruction studio is located inside Mo's. As she was passing the piece around, Shirley mentioned that she and husband Storm were headed for South Coast Repertory Theater for the Saturday night performance of "The Piano Teacher." Of particular interest? Linda Gehringer, who plays the production's title character, prepared for her role by conducting an intense interview with Shirley!

Shirley delivered two fine solos to be found on her album "A Ragtime Feast": "Heliotrope Bouquet" and "Ragtime Nightingale," making fine use of rubato on both and, on "Nightingale," difficult additions to the C-minor bass part and a swingy feel to the final iteration of the B theme. Shirley then asked Bill Mitchell to join her for Eubie Blake's "Baltimore Todolo," a jazzy, swingy, low-down version with Bill on the upright, Shirley on the grand.

Bill and Eric delivered a second duet, Joplin's durable masterpiece "Pine Apple Rag" of 1908. As commentary on Shirley's selection of the Chauvin-Joplin collaboration "Heliotrope," Eric delivered Chauvin's piano part to the 1906 ragtime song "Babe, It's Too Long Off," sans Elmer Bowman's lyrics. Chauvin, as Eric noted, also has an earlier (1903) ragtime song in print: "The Moon Is Shining in the Skies," with lyrics by Sam Patterson (the piece could have come from the pair's 1903 revue "Dandy Coon," of which no published copy remains). Eric noted the harmonic similarities between "Babe" and "Heliotrope" as well as describing the content of Bowman's humorous lyrics, a pleasing contrast with Chauvin's pretty music.

Eric then delivered one of his own originals, and his only entry into the sub-genre of birdcall ragtime: "The Ragtime Warbler" (1988), inspired not only by "Nightingale" and Scott’s "Ragtime Oriole" but also by more contemporary pieces like Glenn Jenks's "Ragtime Hermit-Thrush." Eric closed his set with a nod to the state of Oklahoma's centennial this year by playing his own, souped-up arrangement of John F. Carroll’s music to "The Oklahoma Oil Field Blues," one of the few ragtime pieces to come out of the Sooner State (published in 1920 by H.M. Keifer Music Publishing Company in Pawhuska, Okla.). Again, Eric refrained from singing the piece's lyrics (by Jack Randolph) but described them (the singer longs to be back home in the oilfields where he will, presumably, one day strike it "rich as old John D."). The cover of the sheet music depicts "the Minnehoma Gusher, the 15,000-barrel well" in Pawhuska, as a young gent in a suit sits on a park bench reading a newspaper, the "Oil and Gas News."

Eric then hosted a "cutting contest" between longtime member Stan Long and his seven-year-old grandson, Kaden. The duo opened with some banter a la Abbott & Costello’s "Who's On First?" routine, leading to Kaden’s rendition of "The Entertainer" – a simplified version, true, but the youngster played all four themes using both hands, adding oomph to the final D theme plus a jazzy coda in an impressive OCRS debut. Grandpa Stan followed with Confrey's rarely heard "Nickel in the Slot," a great Novelty tune. With "round one" over with, the audience favorite was Kaden. Round Two began with Kaden playing Stan's arrangement of the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg classic "Over the Rainbow," with nice bass counterpoint and plenty of feeling overall. His last shot at victory, Stan tackled Robin Frost’s "Space Shuffle." "I may go up in flames on this one," he said, then dove in, taking this tough piece, which requires maximum dexterity, at a moderate tempo. Declaring things a tie, Eric oversaw a tiebreaker: A four-handed, one-piano version of the 1917 jazz one-step song "Hong Kong" (Hans Von Holstein-Alma M. Sanders-Richard W. Pascoe), with Stan on the bass, Kaden providing a single-note treble. Still deadlocked, the final tiebreaker was that 1914 classic, "Colonel Bogey March," written by Lt. F. J. Ricketts under the pen name of Kenneth Alford. With Stan on bass and Kaden alternating single notes with chords, this very lively arrangement resembled a piano roll. It could be said that Kaden won the "cuttin' contest," but that it was a moral victory for his proud gramps.

Commenting on Eric's Oklahoma piece, Bill Mitchell joked that he'd like to write "The Signal Hill Oil Derrick Blues" as a salute to his fond memories of those hoary devices. Bill then lent his customary jazzy, swingy touch to three classic rags: Joplin and Hayden's 1901 gem "Sunflower Slow Drag" and two by Scott – "Evergreen" and "Ragtime Oriole," "the granddaddy of birdcall rags." Bill also displayed the folio "100 Ragtime Classics" selected by Max Morath. Bill purchased the volume upon its issue in 1963, noting it's one of the first, if not the first, folio of classic rags ever published.

Noting that RagFest 2006 brought two new pianists to his attention, Eric introduced one of them: Dax King from Valencia, whose repertoire includes all of Joplin's pieces as well as a broad swath of the classics. As if to illustrate, Dax delivered Joplin's heavily classic 1909 opus "Euphonic Sounds," then switched to an earlier Joplin style with 1904's "The Cascades."

On the west coast from his home in Milwaukee, Doug Haise handed Eric a stack of scores by Joplin, Lamb and Scott. The audience applauded each title to signal their desire to hear each piece, with "Champagne," "Top Liner" and "Sugar Cane" garnering the most applause. Doug delivered a crisp rendering of "Champagne" at a sprightly clip, with great phrasing and dynamics. He gave "Top Liner" the proper sweep and grandeur, adding delicate rubato, and nice ebb and flow, to the trio, and a strong, majestic ending. Switching back to the upright, Doug offered a sprightly, up-tempo version of "Sugar Cane."

Noting that the audience had now heard two of Joplin’s three great rags from 1908, Eric delivered what he considered the masterpiece of the three, "Fig Leaf – A High-Class Rag."
Ron Ross offered three originals – old favorites "Joplinesque" and "Digital Rag" and one of his newest works, "The Orange County Rag." With lovely harmonies, "Joplinesque" is pretty and a bit melancholy, “Digital” more funky and jazzy, with insistent rhythms. Inspired by RagFest, "Orange County Rag," Ron said, is a work in progress ("it may never be finished"), its A theme presenting a teasing pattern in the Classic-rag mold; a more dramatic, rag-tango second theme; and a minor-key trio that rings of the trios of Lamb.

Eric then introduced Danny MacLeith of Garden Grove, the second newcomer to OCRS to be "discovered" at RF06. Dan told of his introduction to the works of Robin Frost through John Roche’s fine MIDI arrangements of Frost's works, mostly Novelties that are seemingly impossible for ten human fingers to perform. As if to disprove this, Danny delivered "Uncle Herbie's Rag," a very funky-cool piece with tinges of ragtime, jazz and blues and a distinctive off-meter sound throughout (including stoptime gaps in which we were encouraged to fill in with a loud handclap).

Switching to Confrey, Danny exhibited terrific control and command of the intricacies of "Kitten on the Keys," adding extra choruses of the trio, replete with glissandoes and extra embellishments. He wrapped up his stellar set with more Frost: "Occident Express" which he said, taken at 90 beats per minute instead of the prescribed 120, would be instead "a semi-express." The whimsical piece’s opening theme features triads and augmented chords and, overall, a preference for bizarre harmonies, with a more melodic trio and a barrage of various "train" effects (whistles, crossing sounds, etc.).

Commenting on the Novelty genre and his own preference for the works of Charley Straight, Eric offered the 1916 Straight piece "S'More" from the Tom Brier transcription, before bringing each musician back up for their encores. Bill at the grand and Vincent at the upright gave us a nicely jazzy "Music Box Rag" by Luckey Roberts. Eric then joined them on the Wurlitzer spinet for a six-handed "Swipesy." Shirley gave us a fast, lively version of Irene Giblin's "Chicken Chowder." The rag's hallmark are its chromatic runs in sections A and C, but in the contrasting B theme, you can almost hear them chickens clucking! Eric then joined Shirley for a four-handed rendition of the 1908 Ted Snyder hit "Wild Cherries" (both pieces are featured on Shirley's album).

Stan encored with his Brun Campbell-esque original, "Haunting Accident" and Dax with a second 1904 Joplin masterwork, "The Sycamore," followed by Ron's jazzy piano version of his 1987 song "Small Town Private Eye." Bill brought down the roof with a jazzy, peppy version of Morton’s "Grandpa's Spells," done with Bill's customary aplomb. Doug followed with an up-tempo version of "Grace and Beauty," regarded by most as James Scott's masterpiece, giving this fine rag nice accents, dynamics and variations in volume.

As his encore, Vincent offered "Painted Lady," a slow, swingy, gentle piece, his first composition and the opening composition of the butterfly suite. Danny's encore was one more by Robin Frost: "Eccentric Formulas," whose subtitle is "Oxymoronic Rag" (and, in parentheses, "a musical joke"). This piece has it all – off-meter rhythms, Novelty harmonies, riffs, a catchy second theme and a jumpy trio that seems inspired by "Kitten on the Keys." In all, this odd rag, as its title clearly suggests, is whimsical and charming.

The afternoon ended with Bill, Dax and Eric rendering “The Smiler”; Danny joining them for "Original Rags"; and Bill, Dax, Eric, Shirley and Stan delivering the 1906 perennial "Dill Pickles."

In the course of the day's 225 minutes of performance, the audience heard a total of 47 pieces, which qualifies this as the longest yet also most diverse OCRS to date, offering early ragtime, Classic, popular, Tin Pan Alley, vocal, Advanced, Novelty, Stride and Jelly Roll Morton as well as a pleasing selection of 12 contemporary compositions. We’ll see everyone back at "The Cave" on May 19th!!

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