RagFest Home | The Music | Schedule | Performers | Venues | OCRS | About Us

September 2012 OCRS: Novelties, Classic rags, jazz and contemporary ragtime

Eight pianists and a few audience members assembled at Steamers at 1 p.m. for an OCRS performance that offered a few enjoyable surprises and delivered a total of 34 selections, with a marked emphasis on Novelty piano, classic ragtime and recently composed pieces.

Eric Marchese acted as M.C., kicking things off by saying that a handful of Joplin’s rags just don’t seem to be performed much by ragtime society and festival musicians. These include “A Breeze From Alabama,” “Leola,” “Country Club,” the complete, nine-page score of “The Ragtime Dance” and, from 1904, “The Sycamore.” Eric stated that “The Sycamore” was probably overshadowed by “The Cascades” and “The Chrysanthemum” from the same year but is equal in quality. He also noted that the first half of “Sycamore” (published by Will Rossiter) looks back five years at “Maple Leaf” for its structure, while the trio looks forward by seven years in its resemblance to the chorus of “A Real Slow Drag” from “Treemonisha.” Eric’s second selection was by another Classic ragtimer, James Scott – but not a rag. Instead, Eric did a piano arrangement of the ragtime song “Take Me Out to Lakeside” (1914, lyrics by Ida Miller). Eric intro’d the piece by noting that Scott played the organ at Lakeside, a public park in his hometown of Carthage, MO.

Fresh off his highly successful concert at Old Town Music Hall the preceding Sunday, Vincent Johnson gave us some facts about Rube Bloom, then delivered an all-Bloom set, starting with W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” “as played by Rube Bloom.” This was the familiar blues tune with various Novelty and stride licks added. Vincent learned it from Bloom’s published arrangement, which was issued by Alfred & Co. and which Vincent said “sold surprisingly well.”

Next was Bloom’s “Southern Charms” (1931), which Vincent learned in 2010 but hasn’t played at OCRS since then. The piece is melodic but also lively. Vincent closed by explaining that Bloom had a string of “S” pieces – those whose titles start with that letter (“Soliloquy,” “Spring Fever,” “Silhouette,” “Sapphire” and “Serenata”). Of these, all were published by Triangle Music Co., but when that firm sold all of Bloom’s pieces to Jack Mills, “Serenata” (1928) was for some reason not included – and, Vincent notes, locating copies of the Triangle publications is difficult as all are “incredibly rare.” Vincent said that because “Serenata” was not included in the Mills purchase, “it has since been kind of forgotten.” Luckily, we have Vincent to perform it for us. It’s strongly rhythmic and contains sophisticated harmonies. Like “Southern Charms” and other Bloom pieces, it features active bass work.

Stan Long took the stage and credited Vincent with igniting sparks of interest in piano Novelties – then followed suit by playing Confrey’s “Nickel in the Slot,” whose humorous dissonances do indeed evoke a broken-down nickelodeon and whose harmonies are typical of Confrey. Next was “Dizzy Fingers,” Confrey’s most popular piece next to “Kitten on the Keys.” Stan closed his set with Disneyland pianist Alan Thompson’s boogie arrangement of the “Haunted Mansion” theme song, an interesting and creative take on the Disneyland attraction’s familiar theme song.

Ryan Wishner opened with a wonderful piano arrangement of the 1913 ragtime song “He’d Have to Get Under – Get Out and Get Under (To Fix Up His Automobile)” by Grant Clarke, Edgar Leslie and Maurice Abrahams. Ryan gives the piece peppy energy and much rhythmic snap, then goes to town on the last repeat of the chorus, ragging it up to the finish. He then offered Jay Roberts’ “The Entertainer’s Rag” from 1910, saying that the piece was often used by pianists to try to win cutting contests, since all of its themes are essentially various licks and tricks of pianists of the day. Indeed, the opening theme combines the “three-over-four” device with a circle of fifths, and the piece’s highlight is the simultaneous playing of “Yankee Doodle” in the left hand and “Dixie” in the right hand. Last came Rob Hampton’s superb “Cataract Rag.” Published by Stark in 1914 under his “Syndicate Music Co.” imprint, it harks back a decade to Joplin’s “Cascades” in the way it evokes waterfalls and water tumbling downstream, offering cascades of notes, to which Ryan added fine improvisation for the rag’s closing measures.

Noting that she has been “on a Lamb kick” for much of this year, Shirley Case gave us two vintage Lamb rags bracketing a Max Morath rag written in the 1960s for Lamb’s widow. Shirley opened with the 1913 masterpiece “American Beauty Rag.” Morath’s “One for Amelia” was written in 1964 for Amelia Lamb, Lamb’s second wife, who was widowed when Joe died in 1960. Closing her set, Shirley played “Patricia Rag,” noting that as Lamb’s daugher Patricia wasn’t born until 1924, the piece, from 1916, couldn’t have been named for her. However, it’s probable that Lamb just liked the name Patricia as that’s what he named his only daughter as well as one of his rags. And hearing the seldom-performed “Patricia” is always a treat. Shirley creates pleasing treble embellishments for all three rags. Her tender reading of “One for Amelia” is noteworthy, bringing out the piece’s poignancy while also emphasizing its rhythms.

Gary Rametta prefaced his performance by calling Lamb “an American original,” then gave some back-story on another such composer, Bill Evans, whose forte was jazz. Gary delivered Evans’ “The Two Lonely People,” a delicate, introspective, emotional piece of jazz piano. Gary is one of the few, if not the only, OCRS pianist to perform the works of contemporary ragtime great David Thomas Roberts. Here he performed the haunting, intimately personal “Camille – A Slow Drag,” which balances the tempestuous with softer, more poetic shadings, all containing Roberts’ distinctive harmonic coloring. Gary closed his set with Nazareth’s familiar “Odeon,” named for the movie theater where Nazareth worked.

John Reed-Torres, who like Vincent also performed at OTMH on Sept. 16, treated us to an all-Scott set and saying he wouldn’t divulge the titles and the audience could guess. First up was the charming and light “Dixie Dimples.” Second was one of Scott’s best rags, “New Era Rag,” whose second and third strains resemble the corresponding themes of “The Cascades.” John closed his set with a second late teens Scott rag, “Pegasus” which, like “New Era” is thickly scored and requires considerably dexterity. (BTW, Ryan Wishner was able to name all three.) John not only fulfilled each piece’s needs; he also included many of his own embellishments.

Just before the break, Eric noted that it was 15 years ago this past Labor Day Weekend that the burial of Princess Diana Spencer took place. At home that Saturday, Eric said he was struck by the utter grief on the faces of the crowds that waited to see Diana’s casket go by. He said he began to think through a rag that would reflect the British peoples’ regard for Diana – first, their affection for and love of her (A theme); second, the wrenching shock when they heard the news that she had died in Paris (B theme), trying to come to terms with their grief (C theme) and, finally, trying to gain courage and move on with their lives. The resulting piece was completed that afternoon and called “The Last Princess,” and it does indeed reflect those varying emotions.

Guest pianist Norm Zix launched the second half of the day with the jazz standard “Avalon.” Next was Stan Kenton’s “Painted Rhythm,” a piece Norm said has a genuine big-band sound. Finally was the brassy quality of Kenton’s “Artistry in Rhythm,” a sensitive, expressive piece that Norm said included an elongated intro.

Heading for a gig where he’d be accompanying a silent movie, John encored with Nazareth’s “Dengozo,” then what has become John’s own signature tune – his rag “Belle of Los Angeles.” Both are lively selections with emphasis on the Spanish tinge.

Vincent asked whether we wanted more Bloom or perhaps one of Lothar Perl’s pieces. Perl was the unanimous choice, so Vincent obliged with “The Grasshopper Dance,” noting that Perl fell in love with American pop music and began writing his own unique piano Novelties, which he referred to as “syncopated impressions.” “Grasshopper Dance” has a singular cocktail sound brought out by Vincent’s gentle pianistics. Like all of Perl’s compositions, it’s a delicate, refined creation. Next, Vincent took a request from an audience member to play “Aunt Jemima’s Birthday” (1931), yet another great Rube Bloom composition – this one with an up-tempo, stride-like sound and other devices advanced for its time.

Shirley encored with the moody, dramatic “Texas Fox-Trot,” a well-known, intricate piano piece she said is “definitely not a fox-trot, but a true rag.” For contrast, she played Scott’s “Kansas City Rag,” noting that Kansas City is her birthplace.

Stan’s encore was an untitled combination of patriotic and gospel music, taken at a fairly slow tempo and containing interesting elements of varying styles and genres.

Eric said that after some 15 years of churning out many ragtime pieces (1988 through 2003), he has composed only three new pieces since early 2007. He offered the most recent of these, written since the July OCRS performance. Saying that he views the ragtime community as a sort of utopia where performers and composers support each others’ work, performances, research, recording projects and more – hence the new piece’s title, “The Ragtime Utopia.” Eric preceded it by saying its first three themes are fairly straightforward, that the C theme mirrors parts of the opening theme, and that C leads into a finale that uses three elements: a riff rhythmic pattern in the treble, very bluesy harmonies in the melody line and a countermelody in octaves in the bass.

Ryan had a two-fisted set of encores: First, Woods’ “Sleepy Hollow Rag,” which makes heavy use of tremolo, then Arthur Schutt’s “Bluin’ the Black Keys.” Ryan’s rendition of “Sleepy Hollow” (1918) is faithful to Woods’ score but includes his own embellishments. Ryan prefaced his performance of “Bluin’” by saying he’s still learning the piece and that it’s “the hardest piece I’ve worked on that’s not by Gottschalk.” As his wonderful performance demonstrated, Schutt’s masterpiece is definitely a handful of keys – in fact, two handfuls.

Norm encored with Glenn Miller’s universally known “String of Pearls.”

Closing the day was Gary, giving his perspective on the influence of the South upon ragtime music both past and present, then delivered “Through the Bottomlands,” which must qualify as DTR’s most significant piece – even more so than the much more widely popular “Roberto Clemente.” Gary delivered on the piece’s hallmarks, which he said include “isolation, loneliness and anger,” and captured its powerful emotional force. Gary wrapped things up with Jelly Roll Morton’s “Original Jelly Roll Blues,” a terrific piece that’s rarely if ever offered by solo pianists. Gary did so here with an impressive performance that catches the distinctive “Jelly Roll” sound built into the master’s many compositions.

Eric thanked the musicians and audience and invited everyone to attend next month’s performance at Steamers on Saturday, October 20.

This website ©2012 by RagFest, created and administered by Aeromark