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Late scratch prompts second Nixon Library concert of year – and smaller cast and turnout

A last-minute cancellation by a classical pianist left the door open for an impromptu concert at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda. Eric Marchese accepted the invitation to fill in, then scrambled to put a program together.

As many local ragtimers were in Northern California for the annual Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival, Eric turned to Johnny Hodges and Andrew Barrett, who came through with flying colors. Unfortunately, the library’s website still listed the cancelled performer’s name rather than the ragtime program, so the turnout was fairly modest (some 60 fans).

After a library/museum docent welcomed the crowd, Eric took the mic to say hello and outline the program: Each performer would do a set, then each would return to the stage and do a pair of encores.

Eric got things rolling with “That Demon Rag,” an outstanding piece published by I. Seidel in Indianapolis in 1911 and written by Russell Smith, a black composer who was active on the vaudeville and minstrel show circuits. “Demon” is an outstanding, wholly original rag that doesn’t get much exposure through live performance, a fact remedied by its inclusion here.

Stating that as a large component of contemporary ragtime performance is “an exercise in nostalgia,” Eric introduced a composition he says was inspired by his first few visits to Sedalia, MO, for the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. “Halcyon Days” was started in 1990 and completed in 1991, and it does indeed have the sound of other similar “nostalgia rags” that attempt to recapture the sound and feel of vintage ragtime.

Eric closed his set with one of the handful of great blues numbers by Euday Bowman, telling the audience that as the composer of “Twelfth Street Rag,” Bowman is known to them even if they don’t know his name. Published the same year as “Twelfth Street” (1915), “Kansas City Blues” is among Bowman’s best and, as Eric noted, can be viewed either as a “raggy blues” or a “bluesy rag,” depending on your preference.

Andrew’s three selections created an satisfyingly well-rounded set with one classic rag, one pop song and one Novelty rag. Joplin’s “The Strenuous Life” was the opener, elevated by Andrew’s smooth, polished playing style and inventive embellishments.

Next up was the hugely popular 1926 song “What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry?” Andrew unfurled a beautiful piano arrangement of Walter Donaldson’s score minus Abe Lyman’s well-known lyrics. Then, after enlightening the audience about Roy Bargy, Andrew played a socko version of “Behave Yourself,” one of Bargy’s greatest pieces.

Johnny took the stage and put across one of his many creative, lively and inspired medleys – this one a combination of four well-known pop songs. The selection starts with a completed rendition of “Some of These Days” before segueing into “You Made Me Love You.” A key change brings on “Makin’ Whoopee” before Johnny wraps up the selection with a funky, bluesy performance of one of his signature tunes, “My Handy Man.”

Eric jumped on the classic rag and Joplin bandwagon’s started by Andrew by offering “Gladiolus Rag,” which he selected not only as one of the composer’s all-time best rags but also because the gladiolus is the birth flower for the month of August. Eric also noted that it’s perhaps the most successful of the many re-uses of the durable A and B theme structures of “Maple Leaf” employed by Joplin in a string of rags stretching from 1904 (“The Cascades” and “The Sycamore”) to 1908 (“Sugar Cane”). Eric’s closing number was “Such Is Life,” which he introduced by explaining who composer Charles “Doc” Cooke was and how “Life,” like Cooke’s most famed piece “Blame It On the Blues,” was issued in the mid-teens by Tin Pan Alley giant Jerome Remick. The piece is both beautifully melodic and struttingly hard-hitting – a gem that just doesn’t get enough exposure.

Andrew’s encores mirrored his first set, with another classic rag and a second pop song. Lamb’s “Champagne” warmed the audience with its bubbly contours. Andrew’s final piece was also the only one celebrating its centennial this year, the universally popular “After You’ve Gone.” No matter that Andrew didn’t sing Henry Creamer’s lyrics: his handling of Turner Layton’s score is beautifully authentic, capturing the sound of vintage recordings of the eternally popular piece.

Johnny encored with a gorgeously funky, low-down rendition of the jazz standard “South.” Written in 1924 tune by Benny Moten and Thamon Hayes, and Moten’s most popular composition, it’s one of Johnny’s signature numbers. He then capped the afternoon with a second medley – this time, his “tremolo love song medley” that includes the 1912 song “Estrellita” (“My Little Star,”), the 1875 song “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” and the ragtime-era perennial “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

In all, Andrew and Johnny delivered the goods, with Johnny’s performances eliciting standing ovations – and priming the attendees for a follow-up performance the next Sunday that includes Johnny, Paul Orsi and Vincent Johnson.

 

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