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June 2011: Novelty, Stride, originals and Joplin

Shifting to a later start time to accommodate a jazz group at Steamers, OCRS’s June meeting was three hours long and featured nine pianists and a total of 36 selections, 21 of which were Novelties, Stride pieces, Scott Joplin pieces or original or contemporary compositions.

MC Eric Marchese began the afternoon with two Joplin rags. From 1902, “The Strenuous Life” got its title from a phrase often used by President Theodore Roosevelt. Eric noted that this title was the first of many popular short piano pieces of the day to be inspired by Roosevelt (including “Teddy in the Jungle,” “Bull Moose Rag,” “Teddy Bear Rag” and two pieces with the title “Bully Rag”). Joplin’s 1908 “Fig Leaf Rag” is widely considered the ragtime master’s best rag second only to “Maple Leaf.” Ironically, as “Maple Leaf” was the first Joplin rag issued by John Stark, “Fig Leaf” was the last (in Joplin’s lifetime, that is). Its reflective opening strains move to an exciting, adventurous trio, and the rag’s finale is both jubilant and dignified.

Shirley Case delivered a nicely rounded set starting with the elegant yet sultry tango “Queen of Diamonds” (Galen Wilkes, 1998). Her second selection was Alexander Tansman’s “Blues Prelude,” which sounds a lot more modern than its year of composition (1897) would indicate. The piece features varied dynamics, the left hand crossing the right in playing some of the chords on the upbeat, and pedal-point as a part of the trio bass. This isn’t the first time the piece has been played at Steamers; it was performed at the inaugural Orange County ragtime festival, RagFest 2000, by pianist Terence Alaric. For her closing number, Shirley dug up something she said she used to play during her high school days: “Bumble Boogie,” Jack Fena’s 1946 boogie adaptation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Shirley gave the reading wonderful, enjoyable dynamics.

Stan Long had a trio of Charles N. Daniels hits: “Hiawatha,” “Indian Summer” and “Margery.” Of note is that “Indian Summer” (1909) was part of the ongoing “Indian” craze in popular piano music and quotes the ever-popular “Swanee River” in one of its middle themes.

Frank Sano offered a medley of popular pieces from the 1920s that included “Million Dollar Baby,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” “Chicago,” and “Dinah.”

Ryan Wishner continued to impress his older fellow pianists with a nicely varied set encompassing Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Scott Joplin and Euday Bowman. He opened with Gottschalk’s “The Banjo.” From 1855, the piece, Ryan said, shows the transition from syncopated classical music to ragtime. It frequently offers simultaneous syncopation in both hands and quotes the floating folk strain that would later become “Camptown Races.” “Eleventh Street Rag” was Bowman’s 1917 follow-up to his wildly popular “Twelfth Street Rag” (1915). Ryan noted that much of the piece is similar to “Twelfth Street” and that Bowman also wrote a “Sixth Street” and “Tenth Street” rags. Like all Bowman pieces, it deftly mixes ragtime with Midwestern blues, and Ryan took it at a pleasantly relaxed tempo. “Pleasant Moments,” Joplin’s second ragtime waltz (from 1909), closed the set.

Glen Perelman, a longtime devotee of ragtime, noted that while he’s not truly a ragtime pianist, much of his playing is “ragtime-influenced.” He proved it by playing a heavily syncopated rendering of “Because,” a 1960s song popularized by the Dave Clark Five.

Ron Ross had a set of originals, starting with “Ragtime Song” (which, ironically, is not a song but rather a solo piano piece). He followed with two songs whose comical lyrics Ron also sang: “Sing High, Sing Low” (aka “Virginia’s Party”) and “Passin’ by Pasadena.”

Picking up where he left off from the May OCRS, Vincent Johnson had three more great piano pieces by Rube Bloom, whose first name was actually “Reuben” and its nickname pronounced like “ruby.” The wonderful “Aunt Jemima’s Birthday” (1931) opened the set. Next was “Sapphire” (1927). Subtitled “A Musical Gem,” its opening theme features frequent modulations and its second theme has what sounds like demanding bass work. Vincent closed with “Southern Charms” (1934), a lighthearted, loose, jazzy piece introduced to OCRS audiences earlier this year by Gary Rametta.

Bob Pinsker delivered a wonderful set of three pieces by James P. Johnson. “Innovation” is an early rag (1917) issued on piano roll by Aeolian that has the characteristic sound and feel of all of Johnson’s great works. Bob posed the question “Why didn’t Johnson record the piece during a session many years later in which he recorded most of his earlier works?” The answer: Bob theorized that Johnson didn’t want listeners to realize that he had recycled the piece as the third movement (“Harlem Nightclub”) of his “Harlem Symphony.” As if this piece weren’t obscure enough, Bob then offered two even rarer Johnsons. “Chicago Stomp Down” (1927) has lyrics by Johnny Johnson which Bob sang. He said he assumed the piece was originally written for the unperformed musical stage show “Chicago Loop.” Bob closed with a bluesy yet lively piano roll-style arrangement (by John Farrell) of the (year?) piece “Weeping Blues.”

Eric offered the original classic rag “The Dream of Ragtime,” relating that it was inspired by a chance meeting with two of Scott Joplin’s nieces, in Sedalia, Mo. in the early 1990s during the annual Scott Joplin ragtime festival. He wrote the piece in 1992 as part of a suite that pays homage to Joplin, Lamb and Scott, and dedicated it to Joplin nieces LaIrma White, Donita Fowler and Lillian MacDonald.
The performance was given a short break to raffle off three ragtime items: A souvenir “RagFest” tee-shirt; the CD “Brier plays Marchese,” featuring pianist Tom Brier performing the rags of Eric Marchese; and the LP album “Piano Rags by Scott Joplin,” one of three Joshua Rifkin albums released during the 1970s that helped spark that decade’s Joplin craze.

The encores started with Shirley, who offered a pair of “food” rags from her CD album “Ragtime Feast”: Les Copeland’s “Cabbage Leaf” from 1909 and Sydney K. Russell’s “Too Much Raspberry” from 1916. The former has a light, whimsical feel and the latter an abundance of unusual harmonies, modulations and rhythms.

Having noted at last OCRS that Harry Austin Tierney had nine rags published exactly 100 years ago during the peak ragtime year of 1911, Eric chose “Fleur De Lis,” one of the two 1911 Tierney rags (along with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) to be issued by Joseph W. Stern and Co. While “Uncle Tom’s” is a fine piece that’s often regarded as Tierney’s best rag, Eric said “Fleur De Lis” is seldom played and deserved to be performed more often. Eric then switched to classic ragtime with a second rag from 1911, James Scott’s “Quality Rag,” noting that of Scott’s two rags from 1911, “Ragtime Oriole” was heard much more frequently than “Quality,” a Scott composition of characteristic beauty and grace.

Ryan encored with Confrey’s “Greenwich Witch,” noting its similarities with the more popular “Kitten on the Keys.” Indeed, the opening themes are quite similar, which the second theme features the composer’s typically torrid handling of minor-key harmonies. All in all, Ryan’s rendition featured relaxed, beautiful playing.

Stan encored with “Short Boogie,” one of two original piano boogie pieces. Ron’s encore was also an original: “Valley Ragtime Shuffle,” a 2010 composition with a mood and tone that’s unassumingly sweet and modest.

Vincent offered a second set of Novelties, starting with Louis Alter’s “Piano Phun” from 1925. Born in Haverhill, Mass. exactly 109 years ago to the day (June 18, 1902), Alter had several novelty rags published in New York City, including this one by Robbins-Engel. Its A theme is reminiscent of many of Charley Straight’s opening themes, its second theme is creative, with touches of the minor, and its trio has “phun” with stoptime rhythms. Next up: Billy Mayerl’s “Nimble Fingered Gentleman,” a cocktail piano-style piece with many arpeggios and other light, delicate touches. Vincent closed with Roy Bargy’s “Sweet and Tender,” a light, cheery Bargy Novelty from Chicago (Will Rossiter) circa 1923 whose high point is its adventurous trio.

Noting that he’s been on “a James P. Johnson jag” lately, Bob encored with two of the composer’s greats plus one by Willie the Lion Smith. First up was Johnson’s “Somethin’s Gonna Happen to Me and You.” From the 1931 show “Sugar Hill” (“not to be confused with the 1949 show ‘Sugar Hill’,” Bob noted), its a romantic, poignant piece whose delicate harmonies bespeak dignity and grandeur. After playing it, Bob noted that “the lyric that you didn’t hear was by Jo Trent.” From 1940, Bob then delivered Smith’s “Lament of the Lioness,” a beautiful and lyrical Stride number. Bob closed his set, and the afternoon, with Johnson’s “You Don’t Understand,” noting that the piece, performed and recorded by Bessie Smith, was on the flip side of her recording of “Don’t Cry, Baby.” Bob said he based his performance on John Farrell’s arrangement of it, and indeed, it’s a lively yet pretty Stride tune that was beautifully articulated by Bob at the piano.

Eric announced that the next OCRS will convene at Steamers on Saturday, August 20, from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Have a great summer, everybody!

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