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December 2022: Whole lotta Joplin, and a lot more

The December 12 OCRS at Spice Social featured eight ragtime pianists – Vincent Johnson, Bob Pinsker, Andrew Barrett, Eric Marchese, Pedro Bermudez, Ron Ross, Noah Conger and Barry Blakely – who put on a fine holiday-time musicale for the dozen or so who came out to hear some ragtime piano.

Nearly half the selections were Classic rags, the bulk of which were Joplin, but we also heard an appreciable number of Novelty and Stride pieces plus originals performed by their composers, some of which were world premieres. The focus was on rare and obscure works, and we also got a couple of Christmas-oriented selections to put us in the mood for the holidays.

Ron started us off with two of his best originals – the recent piano work "That Itchin' Rag" and, from a few years back, the fine "Moscow Rag."

Eric offered two rarities from the lower Midwest (Oklahoma and Texas). First was "Oklahoma Oil Field Blues," a ragtime song published in Pawhuska, Okla. in 1920, composed by John F. Carroll and with lyrics by Jack Randolph, with Eric playing his arrangement of Carroll's great score.

Next was "Texas Tommy Swing," written for the 1911 Ziegfeld Follies by Val Harris and Sid Brown. The seminal phrase has the lyrics "It's a Texas, it's a Texas, it's the Texas Tommy Swing" printed on the score, which helps confirm the conclusion that the duo were vaudevillians who wrote their own material (and in this case, saw to it that the piece received publication).

Vincent delivered one selection from each of the Big Three of Classic ragtime, starting with "The Ragtime Betty," an extraordinarily lovely and underplayed 1909 masterpiece by James Scott, and followed by Joplin's "Rose Leaf Rag" and Lamb's "Cleopatra." Vincent's performances featured tasteful expression and enjoyable embellishments that enhance each composition.

Barry Blakely unveiled the world premiere of his recently completed original "Traffic Jam." He began the rag in 1977 but didn't complete it until just these last few weeks. He related that he attended OCRS in October and was inspired, prompting him to complete the rag started 45 years ago. He followed with an outstanding rendition of Joplin's 1904 masterpiece "The Cascades."

Pedro continued the Joplin thread with two of Joplin's earlier rags, "Elite Syncopations" and "A Breeze from Alabama," and one from his second working phase, "Sugar Cane."

Eric set was also Joplin-heavy, starting with "Weeping Willow" and ending with "Eugenia." Sandwiched in-between was Mel B. Kaufman's "Come Across," a terrific three-theme rarity in the popular rag style, published in 1915.

Bob gave us a knockout performance of Clarence Williams' "Wildflower Rag." Next up was Harry P. Guy's "Echoes from the Snowball Club." Published in Detroit in 1898, it's the first published example of a ragtime waltz and a fine piano piece. Bob closed his set with a performance of yet another obscure Eubie Blake piece he found in manuscript. Bob refers to the piece, which was never copyrighted, published or given a title, as "Untitled One-Step," noting that '1912' is written on the manuscript "but," Bob said, "I suspect it was composed a year or two later." The piece has a broad, show-biz/stage show sound and feel, its outstanding first two themes followed by a masterful trio, all given tremendous panache by Bob.

Noah Conger made his OCRS debut with a solid rendition of Jelly Roll Morton's "Grandpa's Spells," replete with creative embellishments. We don't get a heckuva lot of Jelly Roll at OCRS, and this was the first time anyone has performed this highly entertaining piano work.

Ron encored with two more originals: First, he played and sang "The Tesla Stomp," a recently written short and sweet topical ragtime song, followed by the piano rag "Nostalgia."

Whereas Vincent started with all Classics, his encored set was Novelties. When Vincent first emerged on the scene, the Novelty subgenre was his bread and butter, and his performances are polished and thoroughly enjoyable. He bookended his set with two of Rube Bloom's greatest compositions, "Soliloquy" and "Spring Fever." Elevating this set was Lothar Perl's ethereally lovely "Hollywood Stars," given beautiful inflections by Vincent.

Pedro encored with two more Joplins, "Easy Winners" and "Original Rags," ending his set with Arthur Marshall's perennially popular "Swipesy" (trio, of course, by Joplin).

Noah took to the stage again with an untitled original piano rag, then graced us with a selection perfect for the holidays: Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy," which instantly evokes Christmastime for millions of baby boomers by virtue of being featured in the 1965 animated film "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Noah performed the complete score of this now-classic, including several passages that are less familiar to most listeners.

Eric encored with two of Joplin's later works. First was the ragtime song "Lovin' Babe," whose lyricist, Al R. Turner, initiated the piece and published it in 1911, with the credits reading "Words and music by Al. R. Turner", "arranged by Scott Joplin". As Turner was taking piano lessons from Joplin, we can surmise he possibly paid Joplin extra to provide the musical component (either entirely original or perhaps from a single-note melody line provided by Turner). Next was "Silver Swan Rag," issued on piano roll in 1914 but not uncovered until 1970 (because for unknown reasons, Joplin neither copyrighted nor published the work), when Maple Leaf Club member "Piano Roll Albert" Grimaldi found a copy of the roll in his garage and the piece was authenticated, transcribed from the roll, and then published by the club, just in time to be included in the New York Public Library's publication of The Collected Works of Scott Joplin the following year.

He closed his set with the original "A New England Yuletide," a piano rag composed especially for the holidays (first two themes written in 1989, closing themes in 1991) and, as Eric related, meant to evoke his childhood memories of Christmas in his home state (Massachusetts) in the ‘60s.

Andrew made a late arrival at OCRS, and fortunately so, for he gave us an outstanding all-Lamb set featuring rare and obscure Lamb rags, the first two of which were first published in Sue Keller's folio "A Little Lost Lamb.".

From 1903, "Walper House Rag" is the earliest example we have of a Lamb piano rag, really a cakewalk rather than a piano rag. Its general mediocrity can be attributed to Lamb's youth (15 or 16) and inexperience as a composer, yet it took him just a handful or years to create masterpieces like "Sensation," (published 1908) "Excelsior" and "Ethiopia", published in 1909.

Copyrighted in 1959 and almost certainly sketched out years earlier, "Jersey Rag" opens fairly innocuously, its A theme leaning heavily on repetitions of the key motive of the second theme of "Maple Leaf." The tour-de-force comes at the halfway point, with an innovative, and startling, key change from G-flat major to G major leading into a great folk rag-style trio and a good rideout strain.

Andrew closed his terrific set with "Crimson Rambler," one of about 15 presumably lost rags Lamb wrote for Mills Music and one of four whose manuscripts were unexpectedly discovered by Paul Hansen in Seattle in 2011-2012, leading to their initial publication. This one is a great Classic rag with a gorgeous, unmistakably Lamb-esque opening theme. B section is quintessential Lamb showcasing the composer at his best. The fine trio leads into a third iteration of theme B, which closes the rag. Andrew's sensitive, expressive reading elevates and enhances "Rambler," and his was, on balance, a superb Lamb set.

Bob encored with a fantastic rendition of one of his specialty numbers, the great Jimmy Blythe's "Jimmie Blues," Bob's transcription of Blythe's recording from July 1925. The riff on which the trio is based is essentially the main one on which Clarence "Pine Top" Smith based his "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie" a few years later.

Next came yet another Harlem Stride rarity: "Karnival on the Keys" by Willie the Lion Smith. Bob was inspired to play this by the very recent issuance of a previously unknown recording of the number by the composer on the internet a couple of days prior to the OCRS meet. Bob closed his set and the afternoon with still another rarity: Eubie Blake's "Sluefoot Nelson," to this day an unpublished Blake composition, though Eubie did make a recording himself on his own label (as "Slew Foot Nelson") in 1974, released on EBM-6. Bob's rendition was based on Blake's manuscript, which contains a closing theme which Eubie did not use on his recording. The manuscript is located at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore along with literally many hundreds of manuscripts of Eubie's.

We heard a total of 38 selections: 12 by Joplin (11 Joplin and one Joplin-Marshall); five more Classics (four Lamb, one Scott); 7 originals by OCRS pianists; and at least a dozen selections that can be considered obscure, rare, or infrequently performed.


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