April 2018 OCRS a diverse offering of multiple ragtime categories and subgenres
The April 2018 OCRS at Bradford House featured five pianists plus a first-timer just getting his feet wet as a ragtimer. The six performers offered just 19 pieces but the audience hear everything from pre-ragtime 1880s pieces to Harlem stride to contemporary compositions, including early/folk, classic, popular and advanced ragtime. As the afternoon was cut short, time allowed for just two encores after each performer had delivered one set.
Eric Marchese led things off with 1906's "Babe, It's Too Long Off," a song composed by Louis Chauvin with lyrics by Elmer Bowman, playing his piano arrangement and pointing out the resemblance between the song's intro and the opening theme of "Heliotrope Bouquet." Next up was George Cobb's wonderful 1916 rag "Dust 'Em Off." Eric closed his set with "Josie's Waltz," a piece he wrote to celebrate the birth of his niece in April of 2002.
Newcomer Joshua Fields delivered credible renditions of "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer," applying a fairly brisk yet rock-steady rhythm to both.
Next up was Doug Haise with a set created as a tribute to Bill Mitchell. First off was "Grace and Beauty," one of Bill's all-time favorites and his favorite James Scott rag, and the first piece Doug ever played when he did his first set at the Maple Leaf Club. Next was "Snookums," Charles L. Johnson's last published rag (1918) and a piece Bill played frequently, with an A theme that opens in the minor but segues into the major, a second strain with funky-sounding dissonances, and a broad yet melodic closing theme with a distinctly vaudevillian feel to it. Doug closed his fine set with the George Cobb foxtrot "Stop It," published by Walter Jacobs in Boston in 1919, noting that he wasn't sure Bill actually played it but that "it's a piece he would have liked." The rag's opening section uses stoptime to great effect. Its second theme combines the three-over-four device and a riff pattern with typical Cobb ingenuity and its closing theme extends some of that section's ideas to a logical conclusion.
Shirley Case brought us a set of rags by women composers. The first was Imogene Giles' "Red Peppers," a Midwestern classic that's both vibrant and genteel – and the composer's only published work. Next up were two by Irene Giblin: "Sleepy Lou" (1906) and "Chicken Chowder" (1905). "Lou" has a beautiful, lyrical A theme using chromatic runs, B is broadly grand and C is stormy and dramatic. "Chowder" opens with a busy, lively section that moves into a memorable B theme with flourishes that suggest chickens clucking. The highlight is C, an inversion of A.
So that his performance could be "fairly historically accurate," Ryan Wishner moved over to the 1890 Emerson upright, then launched into a crisp rendition of H.J. McKosh's "Dem Bells" (1888), which has a definite late 19th-century if not a mid-Civil War sound and feel. Next up was "New Coon in Town," a James S. Putnam piece from 1884 Ryan said is the second-oldest piece in Brainerd's. The piece is generally unremarkable, of interest primarily as a precursor of ragtime. Ryan then brought us up into the early 20th century, and the ragtime era, with Arthur Tregonia's 1905 piece "The Preacher and the Bear," which he learned by ear from an early recording and which is intriguing for its western/midwestern folk flavor.
Bob Pinsker introduced his selections by outlining the many and varied organizational principles used by ragtime performers in crafting their sets - among them, performing pieces by composers born in the month in which the piece is being performed, dedicating entire sets to one composer or sub-genre of ragtime, selecting pieces that commemorate a particular year (typically, the piece's centennial), organizing pieces whose titles cover a similar subject, and the most obvious principle of all, performing something simply "because it's a great piece."
Bob opened his set with 1914's "Pretty Wild Thing," whose composer, Charles N. Daniels, was born in April (April 12, 1878). The piece's cover shows a deer, a creature that's both pretty and wild. Its A theme is gentle and genteel, B playful and C less bucolic and more urban, capturing the sound of New York City nightlife. Next came James P. Johnson's "April in Harlem," an arrangement for solo piano by Domenic Savino of the second movement of JPJ's "Harlem Symphony", which Bob said is among Johnson's greatest and which has the kind of urban, East-coast sophistication that could qualify Johnson as a black counterpart to Gershwin. Last came "Buzzin' the Bee," a 1917 foxtrot co-composed by Pete Wendling and Jack Wells that counts among the many animal fad dance rags published and whose self-reflexive lyrics are about the piece itself and the steps involved in dancing to it. The piece has a funky, jazzy sound akin to Charley Straight but with touches of Gershwin, and Bob's performance of his just-completed transcription of Gershwin's roll arrangement was lively and exciting.
Limited time after the refreshment break allowed for just two encores. Shirley's was "Cottontail Rag," while Bob delivered another birth-month composition that's also a centennial composition: "Muslin Rag," a 1918 piece by Mel B. Kaufman (born April 23, 1879), known as "the King of the Ragtime One-Step." The minor-key 32-measure B theme is scored to be played once without a repeat. The 32-bar C theme, which is repeated, cannily employs stoptime figures and unusual harmonic progressions before leading back into a reprise of the A theme as the piece's finale.