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First OCRS of 2013 spotlights Black-American and February-born ragtime composers

The first OCRS musicale of the new year featured 10 pianists, including a couple of special guests, whose selections honored Black History Month as well as spotlighting the many ragtime composers born in the month of February.

Norm Zix led things off with “Did I Remember?” and Bix Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist.”

MC Eric Marchese offered a pair of pieces to tie in with the month of February. He opened with “Pekin Rag,” a 1904 piano rag by Joe Jordan, who was born in Cincinnati on February 11, 1884, then followed with a drivingly rhythmic performance of “Grizzly Bear Rag,” one of the two big ragtime hits of George Botsford (born February 24, 1870). Eric said he transposed “Grizzly Bear” to C major (from the original key of G major) because it worked better in performance and because this was the version he had worked up to perform when accompanying vocalist Erika C. Miller.

Ryan Wishner delivered Arthur Schutt’s “Piano Puzzle,” then Joplin and Hayden’s “Kismet Rag,” which was copyrighted on February 21, 1913 (its centennial in just a few days!), but actually composed many years earlier – probably right around the time the duo co-wrote “Something Doing.” Ryan closed his set with “Beautiful Ohio,” the famed 1918 song, lyrics by Ballard MacDonald and music by Robert King under the pen name “Mary Earl.” As usual in his fine performances, Ryan provides wonderful embellishments – fill-ins, tremolos, octave leaps and more – to make his presentations more exciting to see and hear.

Andrew Barrett offered three selections from the many scores he used recently to accompany a silent film in Chapman University’s recent tribute to Huell Howser. First up was Clarence Jones’ “Thanks for the Lobster” (1914), which was obviously strongly influenced by Cecil Mack’s monster 1911 hit “Tres Moutarde” (“Too Much Mustard”). Andrew delivered a brief backgrounder on Jones – his work with McKinley Music of Chicago and his more than 500 piano rolls with Imperial, Wurlitzer and Vocal Style – then introduced “Lobster,” which was billed as a “one-step, turkey trot, tango and two-step.”

Next up, from 1902: “Please Let Me Sleep,” by two African-American ASCAP composers, R.C. McPherson (aka Cecil Mack), who wrote the lyrics, and James T. Brymer, who wrote the music and who performed with J.R. Europe’s Clef Club. A pleasant ragtime pop song published by Harry Von Tilzer, the piece received Andrew’s usual great touch, rhythm, use of rubato, and tasteful embellishments. Andrew closed his wonderful set with “When I Want a Little Loving (Honey How I Long For You),” a wonderful song by Chris Smith who, like Jones, was a very successful African-American songwriter during the ragtime era. Smith co-wrote the piece’s music with “Jolly John” Larkin while the lyrics are by Ferd E. Mierisch. Joseph Stern issued the piece 100 years ago this year, the same year as Smith’s hugely popular “Ballin’ the Jack.” The piece’s verse is elegant and pretty and its chorus even richer, with both sections employing beautiful harmonies as well as echoes in the left hand part. Andrew accentuated these with his delicate touch, use of rubato, and ragging of certain passages to create a more forceful sense of rhythm.

Shirley Case delivered great rags by three composers born in February: James Scott (2/12/1885), Eubie Blake (2/7/1887) and contemporary ragtimer Glenn Jenks (2/9/1947). The Scott piece, “Ragtime Oriole,” prefigured Joe Lamb’s later use, on several occasions, of the subgenre of “birdcall” rags. Shirley nicely reversed the upward motive of “Oriole’s” second theme and called attention to the piece’s D theme, built on a circle of fifths and descending bass octaves, further emphasizing it by omitting the final iteration of the A theme at the rag’s conclusion. Jenks’ “The Ragtime Hermit Thrush” (1986) was inspired by the beautiful call of the bird known as the Hermit Thrush while being strongly influenced by Lamb’s many extraordinarily lovely and melodic birdcall rags. The entire piece is delicate and haunting, with much counterpoint, and Shirley brings out its elegance via a measured tempo and delicate touch. The Blake number is one of Eubie’s best: “Eubie’s Classical Rag,” written and published in 1972 when the composer was, at age 85, enjoying a considerable resurgence in popularity. One of Blake’s most advanced compositions, it’s also among the best pieces in Shirley’s repertoire.

Bill Mitchell honored Black History Month with Joplin’s “Original Rags,” played a la Jelly Roll Morton, and Ford Dabney’s “Georgia Grind,” the latter given a pronounced Dixieland feel by Bill. He closed with the wonderful “Bag of Rags,” by W.R. McKanlass, a very raggy 1912 composition whose second theme is built on a riff plus a very mobile, melodic left hand part, and whose closing theme uses an even catchier, more incessant riff pattern.

Special guest Nick Taylor, in Southern California from November 2012 through March 1st of this year in his fairly new career as an Anglican priest, opened his set with Joplin’s all-time great and hugely influential “Maple Leaf Rag,” offering crisp playing and an emphasis on the rag’s accents – then launched into Galen Wilkes’ “Creeks of Missouri,” taken at a nicely measured tempo. Nick closed with more Joplin – the lovely and intricate “Eugenia.”

Stan Long offered Irene Giblin’s “Dixie Rag,” whose closing four measures quote the song “Dixie.” Giblin’s rag not only turns 100 this year; it was copyrighted in February (2/8/1913). His own birthday being in February, Stan then indulged himself by playing his own “Short Boogie” and “Haunting Accident,” the latter a compression of ideas found in the works of Brun Campbell and Trebor J. Tichenor.

Ron Ross opened with “Rose Leaf Rag,” one of several Joplin masterpieces from 1907, then two originals: “Orange County Rag” and “Sunday Serendipity’’ – the former dedicated to the O.C.R.S. and the latter a mostly minor-key excursion from the year 2000.

Our second special guest, Nancy Kleier, who has had to cut back on her piano playing in recent years due to challenges to her health like cancer surgery in fall, 2012, built a theme set around this aspect of her life: “Tickled to Death” and “Back to Life,” two great Charles Hunter rags, were followed by “After the Cakewalk” (since, Nancy said, battling cancer is “no cakewalk”) by Robert Nathaniel Dett, famed early 20th century black composer of romantic-style piano and choral pieces utilizing folk songs and spirituals. The Hunter selections are among the greatest folk rags ever published, and Dett’s pieces are rarely heard, this one not only very raggy but whose trio has a comfortably familiar sound.

Norm encored with “Dancers in Love,” the third and only all-piano movement of a four-part suite written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in the 1940s, offering the whimsical piece “to honor Steamers.” He followed with Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turque.”

Taking us into a short intermission and the OCRS raffle, Eric offered one of Eubie Blake’s first two published rags: “The Chevy Chase,” issued by Stern in 1914.

During the break, Nick Taylor performed Kathy Craig’s emotionally powerful “Romantic Rag,” dedicating the performance to Nancy Kleier and her husband’s golden wedding anniversary coming up this year. He followed with a crisp performance of the rarely heard “Kalamity Kid” by Ferd Gutenberger.

Nancy Kleier offered one more “loving” rag to commemorate Valentine’s Day: “That Lovin’ Rag” by Victor Smalley and Bernie Adler. Shirley followed with Julia Lee Niebergall’s beautifully melodic and genteel “Hoosier Rag” from 1907. Ryan then chimed in with a smoothly rhythmic, crisply clean performance of Scott’s 1914 masterpiece “Climax Rag.”

Andrew took us home for the day with Luckey Roberts’ “Junk Man Rag,” citing a fine 1946 YouTube performance for this huge hit, which turns 100 this year. Delivering wonderful phrasing, dynamics and tempo, Andrew played the piece in the key of D major (versus the published score, which is in the key of C major), turning in a socko performance that left everyone at Steamers in a wonderful mood – and ready for more ragtime next month, when OCRS meets again on Saturday, March 16.

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