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Incredible, wonderful variety at Spice Social on September 17

Our September 17 performance at Spice Social yielded one example after another of ragtime's incredible range. We got selections of nearly every ragtime genre, with seven musicians performing a total of 32 pieces.

Eric Marchese started with a piece he didn't introduce. He didn't need to, because by the time everyone heard the chorus of this 1911 hit pop song, they knew it was "Oh! You Beautiful Doll." He followed with the Charley Straight rag "Humpty Dumpty," published by Witmark in 1914.

Johnny Hodges also opened with a piano arrangement of a vocal number, "When You Were Sweet Sixteen" (James Thornton, 1898). He then segued into yet another of the ragtime era's biggest hit pop songs, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" (1910) then ended his set with "Maple Leaf Rag."

Christian Marino and Vincent Johnson then delivered a beautiful rendering of "The Entertainer," with Christian on violin and Vincent on piano.

John Reed Torres' arrival was a pleasant surprise, his first post-pandemic OCRS appearance and his first time performing in Orange County since RagFest 2019. He performed three of his outstanding originals. From 2013, "Figueroa Echoes" opens with a gentle section that's developed in the second theme, has a minor-key, tango-like trio, and ends with a riff-like rideout. "Matinee Rag" (2015) has a lively folk-style A theme, a sophisticated B section, a C theme that returns to ragtime's folk roots and uses the "echo" effect, and an exciting rideout. Lastly, we got John's newest rag, completed earlier this year: "Honeydew," a softly expressive classic rag.

Michael Flores opened his set with Jelly Roll Morton's "The Crave," which puts many of Morton's signature devices on display (the self-described "Spanish tinge," hands playing in parallel, extensive use of the break, etc.). His closing number was an up-tempo version of Scott Hayden's outstanding "Sunflower Slow Drag" from 1901 (with a trio by Joplin).

Vincent Johnson picked up where he left off last month in exploring the works of Charles L. Johnson. First off was the wonderful "Blue Goose Rag," published under the Johnson pseudonym Raymond Birch. Next was the lyrical "Pansy Blossoms," which Vincent calls "a very different Charles Johnson rag." He closed with "Hen Cackle," which carries the apt subtitle "A Barnyard Disturbance." From 1912, Vincent noted that Johnson based its opening theme on the A theme of Carrie Stark's "They Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dog Around," using it to create a barnyard feel. Sure enough, the piece has a distinctive barnyard/farm/rustic ambiance. The trio introduces a stoptime figure, and the written tag quotes "shave and a haircut, two bits." Like several of the Johnson rags Vincent played last time around, these were all being played at OCRS for the first time.

Bob Pinsker opened with "Prelude to Act III" from Joplin's "Treemonisha" and one of the three selections from that 1911 opera that Joplin published separately (presumably in an effort to recoup costs Joplin had incurred in publishing the entire score). It's clear when hearing the piece's opening section that Joplin based that section's structure on the opening theme of "Maple Leaf," a durable, through-composed 16-bar template that Joplin returned to repeatedly earlier in his career – notably, twice in 1904 ("The Sycamore" and "The Cascades") and again from 1905 to 1908 ("Leola," "Gladiolus Rag," "Sugar Cane"). Next was James P. Johnson's "After Hours," published in 1923 but never recorded by its composer, with Bob noting that its low-down left-hand style was "really forward-looking for 1923." He closed his set with yet another great James P. piece, "Eccentricity Waltz," issued on piano roll in 1918 and again in 1921, hence a work that Johnson had composed by 1918. Bob's rendition was based on his transcription of the composer's great QRS piano roll version of 1921.

Eric related how Louis Chauvin collaborated with Sam Patterson and Elmer Bowman, who were part of the same St. Louis circle as Turpin, Joplin and many others, on two ragtime songs: "The Moon is Shining in the Skies" (1903) and "Babe, It's Too Long Off" (1906). He chose to play "Too Long Off" due to its similarities to the opening section of "Heliotrope Bouquet" (same key and same or similar harmonies).

Next was Abe Oleman's "Cheerful Blues," published in Chicago in 1916 and unusual in that each section is in a different key, its "blues" elements really more a use of dissonances that create a jazzy, funky feeling. Eric then noted that with Queen Elizabeth's recent passing, he noticed a similarity in the televised images of the British people with those of 25 years earlier, when Princess Diana was killed in a car wreck in Paris. To honor both, he played the original "The Last Princess," written over the weekend of Diana's funeral. Each section reflects how the British people felt about her: The opening theme represents their affection for and adoration of her; second, their shock in learning she had died; third, processing their grief; and finally, trying to move on after coming to terms with her death.

Johnny performed his patented version of "Listen to the Mockingbird" (1855) and his famed, low-down rendering of "My Handy Man" (1928).

John encored with Lamb's wonderful "Rapid Transit Rag" ("because I'm a bus driver," he told us), Floyd Willis' lively folk rag "The Queen Rag," and Fay Parker's "That Irresistible Rag." From 1913, it was her only published rag, and John gives it a great wind-up by playing a third repeat of the closing section in double time.

Vincent encored with one more Charles Johnson selection: "Melody Rag," the composer's arrangement of Rubinstein's "Melody in F." Vincent related that when Forster published the rag's second edition, they simplified the score Johnson had previously self-published. We then got "Shih Tzu Blues," a great Vincent original named for his pet Shih Tzu, Sigmund Freud. To make this an all-Johnson set, Vincent then closed with an outstanding rendition of James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," one of the greatest Stride pieces ever.

Michael encored with an all-Joplin set: "Reflection," "The Cascades" and "Maple Leaf."

Bob encored and took us home with Joe Jordan's final published rag, what Bob declared he was renaming "'Midnight' Todalo, a Raggedy Rag" (1910), and "an early piece by Thomas Waller" ('Fats'), his "Wild Cat Blues" from 1923. Bob noted that the piece contains no actual blues music and that the title was meant to capitalize on the early '20s popularity of the blues, or at least what publishers called 'blues,' similar to how ten years earlier many kinds of published songs were called "rags" or "ragtime" by their publishers, even those without any actual ragtime content.

This was an enjoyable afternoon in that it once again showed us the seemingly infinite nature of ragtime music. We'll be back at Spice in four weeks (Saturday October 15), and the next day, three of this session's pianists (Johnny, Vincent and Michael) will be at the Nixon Library.


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