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July OCRS dominated by originals and odd obscurities

As with our special July 5 concert, our regularly scheduled July OCRS was held at Muckenthaler Cultural Center, but instead at our customary indoor space in the art gallery.

Six pianists – Michael Chisholm, Johnny Hodges, Vincent Johnson, Eric Marchese, Paul Orsi and John Reed-Torres – were on hand with a total of 23 selections, many of which were original compositions or obscure ragtime selections rarely heard in live performance.

Eric launched things with Botsford’s 1910 hit “Grizzly Bear Rag,” giving the piece’s history and explaining that after he and Erika Miller worked it up for RagFest with Erika singing Irving Berlin’s terrific lyrics, he continued to perform their version of the rag whenever he played it as a piano solo. The differences include additional choruses of the second theme and the trio and the piece’s transposition from G major to C major for the A and B themes and from C major to F major for the trio. Next up was Charles “Doc” Cooke’s outstanding rag “Such Is Life,” published in Chicago in 1915 and which Eric said he always gets a huge kick out of when playing it.

Michael announced that he’s got a solo CD in the works and, wanting to record pieces that are rarities, had been plowing through many such unknown outstanding pieces that he calls “weird and obscure.” Among these is the aptly named “Volcanic Rag,” a 1912 masterpiece by Leah Monks Robb. After the piece’s first half boils and bubbles, its trio simmers down (at least by contrast to the A and B themes). Michael’s performance is literally a bracing shower of white-hot lava and blasts of steam and smoke, with thundering bass octaves and other innovative embellishments.

Vincent’s set included two Classic rags and one original. James Scott’s “Honey Moon Rag” opened things, with Vincent giving the 1915 rag a swingy and also sweet feel. His 2017 original “Eureka” was next, a rag that grew out of the annual Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival and dedicated to Chip Lusby, whose home hosts many ragtimers each year. The piece has a busy opening theme, contrasting B, C an offshoot of A with upper-treble octave phrases used as punctuation, and a great rideout strain featuring call-and-response. Vincent said the impetus for the rag was the idea of how John Stark tied Classic ragtime into the tradition of Western classical music. Last was Chauvin and Joplin’s “Heliotrope Bouquet,” which Vincent noted was a turning point for the mature Joplin, causing him to introduce a “softer, bluer color” into his works as well as the Latin-influenced rhythms heard in late Joplin pieces like “Wall Street” and “Solace.”

Having missed performing at OCRS for several years running, John Reed-Torres made a surprise and most welcome appearance. His set was the inverse of Vincent’s, with two originals, one Classic rag. He opened with his newest original, “On the Rocks: An Effervescent Rag,” with a bubbly yet pretty A theme and jazzy, bluesy B followed by a trio that moves into a different direction musically. The closing theme, in the Classic Rag tradition, features back-and-forth interplay between the hands. Next up was Arthur Marshall’s “Kinklets,” followed by John’s “Belle of Los Angeles.” Like “On the Rocks,” this 2012 rag has an elaborate trio and a terrific rideout strain.

Johnny delivered an entertaining, Coke Corner Disneyland-style version of the 1855 pop hit “Listen to the Mocking Bird.” In similar Disney style is Johnny’s medley of the 1918 song “Till We Meet Again” and the 1923 Irving Berlin song “What’ll I Do,” with wonderfully schmaltzy touches such as tremolos and arpeggios.

Eric offered Nell Wright Watson’s “That Texas Rag,” pointing out its hard-hitting, rootin’-tootin’ Western-style sound and floating the idea that its themes were culled from existing Texas folk strains that seem musically to pre-date the piece’s publication date of 1914. He also pointed out that this rag and “Broncho Billy” were both issued by Bush & Gerts, Dallas, in the same year but that the composer of the latter is Nell Wright Slaughter. Since “Broncho” has a copyright date (Oct. 7) but “Texas Rag” none, Eric said he didn’t know which surname was the composer’s maiden name, which her married name. Michael cleared things up by saying that both were married names and that, in fact, the lady ragtime composer was married a total of four times. Michael also confirmed Eric’s supposition that these are Nell Wright’s only two published rags. (Because of this, we don’t know her other two surnames!).

Like “Volcanic,” and also on his upcoming CD, Michael’s next two selections are rarities. Quite late in the ragtime era (1917), Stark published Sam Wishnuff’s “Shave ’Em Dry” in St. Louis, and it’s a hard-hitting, bluesy rag (or raggy blues) that Michael, given the lewd origins of the piece’s title, infused with added raunch. While the B theme tones down the force of the opening section, the C theme is as loud and flashy as A. Closeout strain D is a great blues theme – a true classic. Michael not only gave us the rare piece’s back-story; he also related the anecdote of how Wishnuff left his wife when their daughter was still a baby, prompting the wife to rid her home of every photo of him – thus the composer’s daughter had no idea what her father looked like until Wishnuff sent her a copy of “Shave ’Em Dry,” whose cover sports his photo.

Michael said that Seger Ellis, composer of “Sentimental Blues,” had said of the piece that “you could hear this pouring out of people’s homes” in his native Houston, also Michael’s home town. The opening theme of this idiomatic 1920s blues piece (published in 1928 but recorded earlier) is forceful and especially bluesy and its middle themes are dramatic and exceptionally dark, all given an authentic rendering by Michael.

Paul gave us the back-story of his association with Johnny, describing a friendship that started and developed at Disneyland and noting that his piano style was heavily influenced by Johnny. Paul gave us a little bit of everything: first the 1927 Milton Ager and Jack Yellen hit “Ain’t She Sweet,” with Paul singing and inviting us to also sing along (but with at least a couple of non-vocal passages featuring Paul’s pianistics). Next came Paul’s peppy, up-tempo original “Pepperoni Pizza” from 1982, its closing theme filled with pleasing, downward-cascading phrases. Paul then closed with a lively version of the 1897 Kerry Mills hit “At a Georgia Camp Meeting.”

After the refreshment break came the encores: Eric and Michael delivered a piano and piccolo rendition of Sousa’s immortal 1897 march “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Johnny did “my version of the blues, as if you were in a cathouse seeking salvation” – a low-down, bluesy treatment of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Paul did Gershwin’s “Swanee” with vocals and his second audience singalong of the day. Vincent delivered Clarence Williams’ James P. Johnson-like “Wild Flower Rag.” John gave us an early Joplin, “The Favorite,” and Michael delivered yet his fourth rarity of the day. Issued in Boston by G.W. Setchell in 1903, S. Gibson Cooke’s “Charcoal: A Study in Black” has a pronounced Civil War feeling, moving us from the ragtime era to the turbulence of three decades earlier.

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