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Variety is the hallmark of the first-ever OCRS to be held in October

With RagFest’s move from its traditional October slot to springtime, an OCRS performance was held in October for the first time ever, with Steamers as host. A sizable roster of 12 performers – 10 pianists, 2 string players – delivered some 40 selections. Original and contemporary compositions were prominent as well as rare or rarely heard ragtime pieces, including a continuing focus on pieces published in 1911, with eight in all. Overall, the afternoon was a study in variety, with a goodly helping of folk, popular, classic, advanced, stride and novelty rags as well as many fine pieces written from the 1950s on.

Having worked his way down to the Ws of the alphabet, Doug Haise offered three wonderful rags rarely heard or performed: Lawrence Mitchel’s “Weaving Around,” Thomas Broady’s “Whittling Remus” and H.A. Fischler’s “Weeping Willow Rag.”

A lively ragtime march, “Weaving Around” was issued in 1913 by Sam Fox of Cleveland, OH, who would later publish the hit novelette “Nola.” “Remus” is one of the greatest early rags in print. “Weeping Willow” (not to be confused with Joplin’s 1903 opus) came out 100 years ago this year, issued by Vandersloot of Williamsport, PA. It features a minor-key opening theme, lyrical second theme and a somewhat busy trio. Doug’s visits to Fullerton are too rare; his touch is deft and firm and his readings clean and crisp. What’s more, his performances shed light on ragtime pieces often neglected by most of us.

John Reed-Torres had two Joplins and one original up his sleeve. “The Entertainer” and “Gladiolus Rag” are the classic rags; “Spring Street Rag” is John’s composition. John gave the classic rags a gentle treatment, with single-note variants of the first two themes of “The Entertainer” and pleasing embellishments in both. Originally titled “Carrot Cake Walk,” “Spring Street,” subtitled “A Los Angeles Rag & Two-Step,” uses a familiar vintage rag rhythmic pattern in its opening theme, a folksy, stomping second subject and, for the trio, a tango rhythm underneath a pretty yet grand melody. The lively piece rides its way out with a fine, stomping finale, and we certainly hope John plans to publish the score to this piano solo.

Noting the significance of certain key composers in every musical genre, Gary Rametta opened a Halloween-themed set with Liszt’s “Nuages Gris” (“Gray Clouds”). Noting the piece is somewhat “spooky sounding,” Gary’s performance emphasized its minimalism and atonality, all of which add up to an indeed eerie-sounding piano solo. Next up was William Bolcom’s contemporary classic from 1971, “Graceful Ghost.” The first part of what would become Bolcom’s “3 Ghost Rags,” the now-famed rag is given a “beneficent spirit” interpretation by Gary, who notes that Bolcom composed it soon after his father’s passing. Its Chauvin-esque harmonies are striking, and Bolcom is undeniably in the forefront of modern American music of the last 40 to 50 years. Gary’s solo set ended with Jelly Roll Morton’s notable “Dead Man Blues,” a great Morton-style blues number that quotes the traditional New Orleans funeral hymn “Flee as a Bird to the Mountain” at the opening, closing, and in the midst of Morton’s singular musical vision.

Phil Cannon joined Gary for a guitar-piano duet of Joplin’s immortal “Rose Leaf Rag.” Bill Mitchell then took Gary’s place at the piano so he and Phil could duet on Wenrich’s “The Smiler” and Charles L. Johnson’s “Porcupine Rag.” Bill noted that both pieces have a “folksy, Midwestern flavor” and that “Phil said to play them kind of slow and jazzy” – so that’s what he and Phil did while creating an improvisatory, back-and-forth feel between piano and guitar.

Vincent Johnson had two rare novelties: Lothar Perl’s “Zebra Stripes” from 1932 and Confrey’s 1938 essay “Della Robbia” (no doubt named for the famed Renaissance artist). Creating a whimsical feel, “Zebra Stripes” is a lively novelty with a lyrical trio, while the Confrey piece is, as Vincent noted, slower and more expressive than the composer’s better-known ’20s novelties. He closed with an original he intended not only as “a tribute to 1930s-era novelties and love songs, but also as an original “with the longest title” of any: “Eighty-Eight Reasons to Love You and Ten Reasons You Can Love Me Too.” Noting that fellow ragtimer Max Keenlyside sees the piece as “Rube Bloom meets Billy Mayerl,” Vincent then proved all of the above points with the piece’s whimsical opening theme and an eccentric second subject in a piano solo that would be an obvious challenge for any pianist beside the composer.

Ryan Wishner essayed Gottschalk’s “Ojos Criollos” (“Creole Eyes”), a mid-19th-century piece issued as a solo only after gaining popularity as a two-piano piece. Next was Joplin’s non-ragtime waltz “Harmony Club Waltzes.” From 1896, it was among the first handful of Joplin pieces, all non-ragtime, to be published, along with several others from 1895 and ’96. Ryan nicely embellishes several of the piece’s many sections, even handling the tricky G theme with ease. Last up was Confrey’s “After Theater Tango,” part of the composer’s 1932 New York Suite. The piece nicely alternates major and minor tonalities, and overall, Ryan’s keyboard work exhibits a fine balance between interpreting the written score and injecting his own ideas.

Bob Pinsker tried to stump us with a 1911 piano solo taken from an orchestration he found at the Chicago Public Library. Your reporter detected a jazz/blues flavor in the opening section and an obvious blues, arranged as a riff, for the second section, leading him to guess that this was a blues song. Indeed, as several audience members guessed and Bob revealed, the piece was indeed a blues – Chris Smith’s “The Monkey Rag,” aka “Honky-Tonky Monkey” – unusual for its time. Next was Max Morath’s “Old Mortality,” a 1985 entry in his series of Cripple Creek rags (named for various mines in Cripple Creek, CO) and dedicated to Rudy Blesh upon the latter’s death. Indeed, the piece has the same folksy yet haunting sound as several other Morath rags. Last up was Elmer Olsen’s fine but rarely heard “Town Talk.” From 1917, it’s a busy, lively piece with considerably advanced writing that foreshadows the works of Zez Confrey and other later novelty composers. Bob’s forceful playing brought out the best in all three selections.

Ron Ross offered “the latest version” of his 2011 piece “What’s Next?,” which has a more contemporary sound than some of his other piano pieces, and “Rose Leaf Combination Tango,” also written earlier this year. He was then joined by Phil Cannon for a guitar-piano version of his earlier composition “Sunday Serendipity,” which Ron referred to as “kind of an oddball piece.”

During the last few OCRS gatherings, Eric Marchese has been revisiting the many pieces from 1911. He continued that theme with two of George Botsford’s three piano rags from that year, “Hyacinth Rag” and “Royal Flush – A Rag.” Eric noted that these pieces and several others have a family resemblance to Botsford’s most famous hit, “Black and White Rag,” as well as to each other. All are in the keys of G and C major, all lean heavily on the three-over-four pattern, all feature catchy melodies and infectious rhythms, and all conclude with the second or B theme transposed up a fourth. “Hyacinth,” Eric added, has an unusual 16-bar introduction, mostly in the minor, before lapsing into the safe-and-sane three-over-four. Eric also noted that in writing “The Tierney Rag” in 1913, Harry Austin Tierney essentially rewrote the trio of “Hyacinth” nearly note for note. “Royal Flush,” Eric noted, is even more inventive and creative than “Hyacinth” despite being more obscure. Eric is working up “Honeysuckle,” the third Botsford rag from 1911, promising it for the next OCRS.

Bill Mitchell, Jimmy Green and Andrew Barrett took the stage to offer piano, banjo and washboard arrangements of “Original Rags,” “Some Of These Days” and “Grandpa’s Spells.” Completely unrehearsed and improvised, the set had a loose, swingy feel and genuine Dixieland flavor, even offering customary, Dixie-style solos.

Andrew Barrett then soloed an all-1911 set comprised of “By the Saskatchewan,” “Ragtime Oriole” and “The Great Name Waltzes.” The lyrical, lightly syncopated opening number, a hit song from the 1911 operetta “The Pink Lady,” was composed by Belgian Felix Tilkin under the name Ivan Caryll. Amazingly, Scott’s 1911 opus “Ragtime Oriole,” one of the first “birdcall”-style rags, has not previously been performed at OCRS; its highlights are its long, flowing melodies, melodic trio, and Andrew’s nicely embellished repeat of the fourth theme. A soft, light semi-classical piece with a broad A and busy B theme, “The Great Name Waltzes” is by Theodore Bendix, issued by Leo Feist in 1911.

Ryan Wishner encored with “The Flash,” a “March/Galop” from 1869 by Carlo Mora. Ryan said the piece was “a fad hit for a few years,” while Perfessor Bill Edwards categorizes it as “pre-ragtime music that contributed to ragtime-era music.” Indeed, the heavily syncopated piece marries the liveliness of ragtime with the sound and feel of the classics.

John Reed-Torres chose James Scott’s “New Era Rag” as his encore, yet another great late entry to the Scott catalog, with a wonderful trio given extensive embellishment by John on its repeat. The piece, notes Jasen & Tichenor, is apparently Scott’s answer to Joplin’s “The Cascades” – 15 years later. Just see how the “New Era” B and C themes matches up with the corresponding sections of “Cascades.”

Vincent Johnson encored with Billy Mayerl’s “Jasmine” from 1929. Never before played at OCRS, it boasts an ethereal opening theme, a dramatic second section and a lyrical trio that leads back to the delicate A strain. At times, the feel and mood of the piece resembles those of Lothar Perl.
Bill Mitchell encored with yet another always-welcome James Scott selection, “Grace and Beauty,” the composer’s 1909 ragtime essay that’s often considered his best rag.

Gary Rametta encored with David Thomas Roberts’ “Through the Bottomlands,” a haunting elegy to the land and to peoples’ often primal relationship to it and, as Gary noted, a natural tie-in to his first set’s autumn and Halloween flavor.

Bob Pinsker delivered two encores, both contemporary: William Bolcom’s “Last Rag” and Neil Blaze and Eric Marchese’s “The Northern Lights.” The former, Bob said, came out in 1968 when its composer, concerned that he might continue to eschew other musical forms in favor of ragtime, decided to make this piano piece his final contribution to ragtime. It’s a wistful, poignant piece whose haunting second theme is also the rag’s conclusion. Noting that many a ragtimer will relish discussing and debating which composer contributed which strains of any given collaboration, Bob then delivered the Blaze-Marchese piece (from 2005) before asking the composer present (yours truly) to step up to the mike and reveal which sections are Blaze, which Marchese. (For the record, Blaze emailed the completed A theme to Marchese, who wrote the second theme; weeks later, while visiting the Midwest and Blaze’s home in Wisconsin, Blaze suggested that the trio move the piece from G major to E-flat major. Marchese said the suggestion kick-started his writing of the trio, whose motifs echo Blaze’s A theme. Blaze wrote the final theme and Marchese the piece’s introduction.)

Andrew Barrett closed the fine afternoon of entertainment with Jay Roberts’ rarely heard “Joy Rag.” This wonderful, upbeat rag from 1911 (published by Forster of Chicago) is quite inventive, and certainly heard much less frequently than Roberts’ “The Entertainer’s Rag.”

Eric announced that the last OCRS of the year will be held at Steamers on Saturday, November 19 from 1 to 4:30 p.m. in celebration of the Orange County Ragtime Society’s 10th anniversary. We’re planning to serve ragtime cake and to revisit some of the highlights of the last decade – so please join in on the festivities!

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