Confrey and Scott Joplin mingle at September OCRS
Our final OCRS of the year – RagFest
comes next, then a three-month hiatus over the holidays – unfolded
at Steamers with a baker's dozen of musicians and a good- sized crowd.
Five of the 13 pianists were also composers who featured their own
works, or each other's, or the works of fellow contemporary ragtime
composers, and a good many of the afternoon's selections were by the
great Zez Confrey, while the works of Scott Joplin also surfaced with
some degree of regularity. (Of the 39 selections, 12 were by contemporary
composers, seven by Joplin and six by Confrey for a total of 25.)
The performances proved a fitting way to commemorate Steamers' 15th
year in existence.
Starting off the day was Vincent Johnson with "Coaxing the Piano,"
the last of the seven Novelties Confrey had copyrighted in 1921 and
1922. It's also underperformed and underplayed, so it was nice to
hear it – and though Vincent said he had "just learned"
it, you wouldn't know it. He made the piece exciting, especially by
slowing down for his final reprise of the A theme before gradually
Making only his second appearance at Steamers (and at OCRS), Robert
Wendt dazzled everyone with his thoughtful, tender, evocative reading
of William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost" (one of a suite of
three "ghost rags"). He closed his abbreviated set with
a sprightly reading of "the king of all rags," Joplin's
"Maple Leaf Rag."
Shirley Case essayed three tunes from her wonderful "Ragtime
Feast" CD: Two "birdcall" rags and one Joplin collaboration.
She opened with Joseph Lamb's masterful "Ragtime Nightingale"
(1915), first giving us the opening passages to Chopin's "Revolutionary
Etude" – which inspired Lamb to write his rag – then
playing the rag, whose opening left-hand motive is lifted from the
Chopin piece. Shirley then did a much more recent Lamb birdcall rag:
"Ragtime Bobolink," which though originally composed sometime
in the mid-teens, remained unfinished until 1960, when it was finally
published. (This fact may also explain why the piece's harmonies sound
more jazz-oriented and modern.) The moving Joplin-Chauvin Classic
rag "Heliotrope Bouquet" closed her wonderful set. As with
all of Shirley's renditions, these featured inspired embellishments.
Noting how much Joplin had already been done so far, Eric worked through
"Euphonic Sounds," one of six outstanding Joplin pieces
in their centennial years this year. Eric noted that he's been performing
these six pieces at various OCRSs throughout the year, that he'd just
performed all six during a solo concert a few weeks ago, how much
he enjoyed playing "Euphonic Sounds" and how completely
novel it is among all Joplin works in terms of constant harmonic changes
and the almost complete suspension of the standard "oom-pah"
ragtime bass in favor of single-note runs, block chords, octaves and
other less predictable patterns.
Devon Henderson, who hadn't been involved with ragtime music since
1993, one of his last visits to the Maple Leaf Club, recently made
contact with Eric through Facebook. He opened his set with an original,
"The Dry Rag," a whimsical piece written 30 years ago and
some ten years prior to his involvement with Maple Leaf Club. The
piece's main theme (the opening section) is simple and wistful, with
the B theme acting as a pleasing complement. Devon followed with another
original, "The Fourths Rag," written a decade later in 1989,
and "Josie's Waltz," a syncopated piece in three-quarter
(waltz) tempo written by Eric in 2002 which Devon said he had just
learned less than two weeks earlier. As befits its title, "Fourths"
is voiced mainly in fourths, with a jazzy flavor and breaks during
which Devon snapped his fingers; Devon closes both his rags with double-time
renderings of the main themes. By contrast, "Josie's Waltz"
was performed slowly and carefully and with a great deal of expression
Jared DiBartolomeo delivered an amazing set of technically taxing
works, beginning with Rob Hampton's "Agitation Rag." He
followed with Bix Beiderbicke's legendary "In a Mist" (1927),
then closed his set with Eubie Blake's "Baltimore Todalo,"
a quintessential piece of East-Coast ragtime, accompanied by Andrew
Barrett on washboard. On all three selections, Jared demonstrated
his superb skills as a pianist.
Andrew opened his solo set with one of the many Novelties Vincent
Johnson has composed in the last few years: "Octopus on the Keys,"
a tricky Novelty subtitled "The Cephalopod Shimmy." He followed
with Maceo Pinkard's "Lila" and closed with one of his own
numerous compositions, a Stride piece titled "That Ding-Dong
Cat Bag – An Amazing Rag." "Octopus" has a lively
opening theme, a funkier second section and a playful trio; the entire
piece, its composer has said, is meant to imagine what an octopus
would sound like if it could play piano. Andrew said he was inspired
to learn "Lila" after first hearing it on piano roll. "Cat
Bag" is indeed amazing not only as a composition but also due
to Andrew's performance of it. Its second section quotes "My
Gal Sal," and its tempo shifts from rapid to a pleasant clip.
With Andrew on washboard, Bill Mitchell delivered W.C. Handy's immortal
"Memphis Blues" (1912), followed by Burris & Smith's
"Ballin' the Jack." In Bill's hands, Handy's piece is funky,
jazzy and bluesy and "Jack" is jazzy and swingy, with loose
phrasing and improvised breaks which Andrew filled in with tap dance-
Randy Johnson offered "Weeping Willow" as a piano solo,
then invited Rob Thomas to the piano as he switched to the melodica
for Confrey's "High Hattin'," the second section of the
composer's "African Suite" (1924). The duo were joined by
Andrew on washboard and Kathryn Ryan on the jaw harp.
Frank Sano delivered a medley of '20s standards: "Breezin' Along
with the Breeze," "The Blue Room" and "You Were
Meant for Me," then repeated all three pieces, this time on the
ukelele with Bill on piano and Andrew on washboard.
Continuing the afternoon's fascination with Zez Confrey, Vincent played
the rarely heard "Grandfather's Clock" from the 1930s. The
lightly syncopated piece features a delicate, single-note melody line
and periodic "chimes" effects (chords at or below middle
C). Vincent also offered "Hollywood Stars" by the German
composer Lothar Perl, who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s and wound
up in Southern California. The piece, from 1932, is a gentle mixture
of Classic, popular and advanced ragtime and is perhaps best described
as creating a cocktail piano sound.
Ron Ross offered his original "West Coast Tango," with a
percussion section populated by Rob, Kathryn, Robert and Marilyn Martin.
He followed this rhythm extravaganza with another original –
the solo vocal number, "Good Thing Going."
Rob Thomas then offered the rest of Confrey's "African Suite":
"Mississippi Shivers," the first piece, and "Kinda
Careless," its third and final section. Rob soloed on the former,
while for the latter, he invited Randy to return to the stage with
the melodica. While Rob played the soulful piece's downbeats and chords,
Randy blew (and fingered) the melody line.
Marilyn Martin presented her original "Ode to Vincent Guaraldi,"
based on the famous jazz composer's theme music for the 1966 television
special "A Charlie Brown Christmas," then followed with
Harry Puck's "The Foot Warmer" from 1914.
The encores began with Robert's performance of "Curious Little
Duckling," a light little ditty which Robert said he had heard
long ago and whose artless simplicity made the piece memorable. Eric
said he recognized the tune as having been performed by Chico Marx
in the 1940 film "Go West," even demonstrating part of Chico's
pistol-finger performance. Shirley offered yet more Bolcom: the pretty
"Through Eden's Gates," one-third of the composer's "Garden
of Eden: Rag Suite" (1971). Devon's encore was another original:
"Lake Shrine" (1990), a moving, emotionally intense ragtime
waltz whose melodies and harmonies do much to showcase Devon's classical
Bill brought us more Joplin with the 1906 piano-solo version of "The
Rag-Time Dance – A Stop-Time Two-Step" (the longer version,
from 1902, includes lyrics by Joplin as well as instructions as to
how to do the various dance steps). Rob and Eric delivered a four-handed
"Swipesy," with Rob on bass and Eric on treble and backed
by several of the Valley Ragtime Stompers percussion group. Eric offered
another 1909 Joplin, the rarely heard "Country Club," with
Randy and Andrew comprising a rhythm section. Jared's encore was a
spirited version of James P. Johnson's iconic "Mule Walk."
Vincent, with Andrew on washboard, delivered a dynamite "Kitten
on the Keys," Confrey's signature tune, before Andrew launched
into the afternoon's final selection – a "serious"
Novelty he completed two years ago titled "Flying Rhino,"
an amazingly complex (harmonically and rhythmically) composition soon
to be featured in a folio.
Had Nan Bostick and Bob Pinsker been present, we might have had a
musicale that could have been considered legendary. As it stands,
though, this is one that will live long in the memories of those present
as one of the most diverse, pleasing and just downright fun of any
OCRS performance to date.