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Pianist-composers, Zez 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 speeding up.

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 and rubato.

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- like beats.

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 training.

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.

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