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April 2023 delivers healthy dose of contemporary ragtime compositions and some tantalizing obscurities

April's OCRS at Spice Social featured six ragtimers – Vincent Johnson, Max Libertor, Eric Marchese, Bob Pinsker, Ron Ross and Ryan Wishner – plus vocalist Dalton Thomas who performed a total of 29 selections. This time around we got an unusually high complement of contemporary ragtime compositions (some 12 in all). Another eight selections were otherwise rare, obscure or infrequently performed works, so more than two-thirds of the program consisted of musical material not heard routinely.

The combination of newer originals plus rarities made for an intriguing performance – and, like most of those we've had in recent months, among the more memorable.

Eric opened the afternoon with Joplin's fantastic "Euphonic Sounds," a sui generis composition from 1909 and one of the composer's six masterpieces from that year.

Vincent noted that as he had done with February and March, he wanted to select pieces by composers born in the month of our performances. Two of his favorite composers, Zez Confrey and Rube Bloom, have April birthdates.

Vincent launched into his first Confrey-and-Bloom set with Bloom's "Soliloquy." Next up was Confrey's "You Tell 'Em Ivories." The outstanding set closed with Bloom's "Sapphire."

For years, Vincent has served up "Soliloquy," which is perhaps Bloom's most famed piece, and for good reason. It's one of his best, and is among Vincent's best specialties. "Ivories" is a rarity with a strong family resemblance to other Confreys like "Kitten on the Keys" and "Greenwich Witch," with a cheerful opening section and a beautiful C theme that's rhythmic but also pleasingly likable. "Sapphire," from 1927, isn't really a rag (as Vincent pointed out). No matter. It's a simply superb composition, and whether intentional or not, heavily reflects the influence of Gershwin.

Ryan offered up one of his seemingly infinite supply of pieces from the decades leading up to and just preceding the ragtime era. "Hear Dem Bells," by D.S. McCash, was written and published in the 1880s. Ryan said he has based his arrangement on a semi-ragtime arrangement heard in a recording from around 1900-1901. Clearly leading up to what would become pure ragtime, the piece's intro and busily syncopated opening theme bear similarities to "Listen to the Mockingbird."

Max Libertor delivered a beautiful 2009 ragtime meditation by Tom Brier whose apt title is "Meditation." The mostly minor-key masterpiece is powerfully wistful, a definitely meditative work that evokes intense emotions, using ragtime as its vehicle. The rag, given wonderful expression by Max, typifies many other similar Brier pieces that tap deeply-felt emotions.

Eric noted that as he missed February and played minimally last month, he's still working up pieces by February composers, offering "Pekin Rag." Eric noted that Joe Jordan, born in Cincinnati on Feb. 11, 1882, had an intriguing life that took him around the U.S. and included a stint as musical director of the Pekin Theater in Chicago and a career in real estate that saw him pull in, then lose, multiple fortunes, each loss prompting Jordan to start on the next one. Eric said that of the handful of his rags published from 1902 to 1910, all are good but at least a couple are great – including "Pekin Rag," which can be defined as not just good but truly great. Eric's arrangement, the same one he recorded in the early '90s, appends a key phrase from the opening section onto the rag's conclusion to create a coda with a Jordan-like sound and feel.

Bob carried forward the February composer thread with an extension of a fantastic James P. Johnson piece he introduced in March. The ragtime piece that first came to light in 1949 and just resurfaced earlier this year had no title, but given its history (recorded by jazz superfan Floyd Levin when JPJ was in Los Angeles in the summer of 1949) and how it came into existence, it's been given the title "Just a Rag, Floyd" by Bob, who since our last performance has completed his transcription of this three-themed piano rag. This "new" piece nicely reflects the qualities of James P.'s music that make it great. Its main theme is akin to the masterful "Carolina Shout" (yet in a different key). Bob said the second theme is very much "a modernized version of the second theme of ‘Maple Leaf Rag,'" and Bob plays it, as James P. intended, like a roughly improvised version of that famed theme – yet the section's ending is more Stride-like, more like others by Johnson. Bob calls the third theme "hard to identify"; however you categorize it, it's got a busy, forward-moving melody line. All in all, this is another great discovery by Bob and yet another eye-opener he has brought to the OCRS over the years.

Ron gave us the first complete set of the day with two of his originals. Ron said he started "Nostalgia Rag," a semi-moody ragtime tango, in 2005, after which it sat for a decade until he "rediscovered" and completed it in 2015. "Orange County Rag," named in honor of the O.C. Ragtime Society and its annual parent, RagFest, has a straightforward opening theme and a moody, tango-like second section that explores the minor modality. The trio strongly hints at the works of Lamb, leading into the rag's finale, a restatement of section B.

Eric also offered a two-rag set wrapping up his February composers with one piece by George Botsford (born Feb. 24, 1878, in Sioux City, IA) and an original (Eric's DOB is in February of 1960). Botsford's "Honeysuckle Rag," as with so many of his rags, leans heavily on the three-over-four device but has some intriguing quirks. One is that as "Black and White" reinterprets the upward arpeggio of "Maple Leaf" at the same point (measures 7 and 8 of the A theme), "Honeysuckle" borrows the main rhythmic motive of the "Maple Leaf" second strain in its second theme, which is the rag's main section. The other tangy oddity of "Honeysuckle" is its use of the minor mode for its opening theme, which combines nicely with the 3-over-4 staple. Eric's "Zephyrs of Yesteryear" is a lyrical, classical-style rag from the early 2000s that mirrors some of his other similar works as well as some better-known vintage rags.

Max returned to the stage with "Cookie Cruncher Rag," an original he wrote last year in collaboration with Cameron Lee Simpson and whose hallmarks are a cheerful opening theme with a busy, single-note melody line, and a second theme with a structure and with bits and pieces that are akin to the B theme of "Maple Leaf" but which are cleverly integrated into the whole. Though it resembles the A theme, the trio is more subdued than the rag's first half, leading into a wonderful ride-out as the finale. The entire piece sounds like something Tom Brier would have written and it was obviously inspired by Brier's works, as Max hastened to point out.

Next up was Max Keenlyside's "Airplane to St. Louis" from 2012, whose opening section is fun and lively and whose second theme features a suspended bass line that hints at stoptime. A bridge with intriguing modulations leads into the Stride-like C theme and the piece returns to section A for its conclusion.

Max closed his set with two more Tom Brier pieces: "Pacific Waltz" and "Szechuan-On-The-Left." Though Brier was all of 18 when he wrote "Pacific" (1991), it's a lovely, Victorian-style light classical waltz that reflects tremendous maturity, mixing gentle themes with bolder, more intense passages and deftly taps the minor modality for a change of pace and mood. From 2003, the humorously named "Szechuan-On-The-Left" features Asian-sounding intervals (fourths) in an up-tempo, stomping, lively format. The rollicking B theme leads into the wild C, which opens with the main melody played in syncopated octaves by the left hand. The closing D theme meshes features from the preceding sections, featuring crazy-fun modulations.

Ryan noted that the joint dates of April 14 and 15 have been linked with tragedy in history. President Lincoln was mortally wounded on Friday night April 14, 1865, and died the next morning; the Titanic struck an iceberg late at night on April 14, 1912, and sunk into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912.

Ryan pointed out that songwriters of the ragtime era wasted little time in capitalizing on anything newsworthy and that within just weeks of the maritime tragedy came the song "The Wreck of the Titanic," composed by Jeanette Forrest and published by Frank K. Root of Chicago and New York (aka McKinley Music Co., Chicago, as Root and McKinley operated more or less interchangeably). The piece typifies the kind of descriptive music that was popular during the ragtime era, with successive aspects of the voyage, collision and sinking described in captions printed at various points in the score; it also creates special effects, such as the use of arpeggiated chords to suggest the ringing of the ship's bells.

Survivors of the Titanic reported that the doomed ship's band played "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and, as the vessel was sinking, "Nearer My God to Thee." While Forrest interpolates the well-known hymn into "Wreck" but not Berlin's work, Ryan has cleverly included the hugely popular 1911 ragtime song into his performance. The piece's mood gradually shifts from lively and happy to poignant, and Ryan's playing of it aptly segues from joyful to softly expressive.

Bob opened his set with Rube Bloom's "Blues." Subtitled "a modern piano solo, this rare piece is from the suite "Moods" containing five of Bloom's solos, issued by Robbins as a folio in 1931. Bob said he chose it because as it's not the typical Bloom Novelty, it wasn't likely to be performed today by Vincent, our resident expert in all things Novelty. Indeed, as played by Bob, the work is a striking blues number and a highly original take on that distinctive genre.

Bob then zeroed in on Charles N. Daniels, another great ragtime composer born in April (Daniels was born on April 12, 1878, in Leavenworth, KS), offering up his rendition of "Borneo Rag" from 1911. Daniels used his "Neil Moret" pseudonym on the rag, which was published by the Detroit office of Remick, the company Daniels' musical expertise helped to publishing dominance during the ragtime era. As a further footnote, the copyright date of "Borneo" is April 8, 1911, which means its selection had two tie-ins with this month.

Before playing the rag, Bob related its connection with Tom Brier, tying it in with Max's previous Briers: "Borneo" is one of many Daniels pieces recorded by Brier in two-piano renditions created by Brier and Nan Bostick, Daniels's great-niece. Bob reminds us that when performing "Borneo" in person, Bostick and Brier would add their own comedic "shtick," featuring what has sometimes been called the "Brier Bounce", promising to attempt to replicate that during his performance – which he indeed did do, also managing to generate so full a rendition as to sound much like the duo's four-handed version.

Continuing on the subject of Brier, Bob said that "at this moment Tom Brier has more fans than he ever did before, because of the thousands of YouTube clips both of Brier playing his own pieces and the countless others recording themselves playing Brier's rags, then posting the recordings on YouTube." That was Bob's segue into "Just Peachy," a lighthearted Brier semi-Novelty from 1991 of which he gives a lively rendition, with a forceful, full-speed-ahead treatment to sections A and B and a quieter handling of the closing C theme that nicely complements what precedes it. As if to punctuate the piece, Bob does a second repeat of C at the finale, this time playing it mainly in bass octaves.

Bob closed his Brier tribute set with "The Green Meadow" and "Perryville," two more Brier compositions which, as with so many of his works, are rarely performed. From 2000, "The Green Meadow" is yet another gorgeous Brier waltz that definitely sounds like he's channeling a "country" sound (e.g. mandolins and the like). The entire piece is introspective and wistful, and Bob noted that its home key of E major "is a typical string-band key but not typical of ragtime."

Brier dedicated the classic rag "Perryville" to his aunt, and it proves just as gentle, wistful and emotionally expressive as "The Green Meadow." Bob related that Brier's compositions (such as this) have been transcribed by the dozens by fans despite the fact that the composer scored, typeset and published them – but since his injury, Brier's second folio and later folios has become a rarity that has frustrated and confounded ragtime fans everywhere, yet they've proven their determination to access, and find a way to perform, such modern masterpieces.

As a nod to Easter, Eric offered 1912's "The ‘Bunny Hug' Rag," the first of three rags to bear that title. Eric noted that on the title page, the words "bunny hug" are in quote marks, and said he prefers this piece, by Harry DeCosta, to the George Cobb "Bunny Hug" of 1913 (and that he's unfamiliar with the other 1913 "Bunny Hug" by Keith Abendana). Before performing it, Eric pointed out that DeCosta's score contains an abundance of "hopping" and "leaping" figurations of notes that literally evoke the movements of a bunny and make the piece an enjoyable one especially at Easter-time but also throughout the year.

Ryan closed with an enjoyably diverse three-selection set comprised of "Maggie Murphy's Home," a pre-ragtime song from 1890; "Goffs Rag," one of his newest originals; and "Reflection Rag," published by Stark posthumously some eight months after Joplin's death.

A rarity from the dawn of the ragtime era, "Maggie Murphy" was issued in 1890 with music by Dave Braham and lyrics by Edward H. Harrigan. Ryan, in attractive period attire, invited the similarly-clad vocalist Dalton Thomas to the stage to provide the song's vocals – and that he did, offering beautifully clear, strong tenor vocals. Ryan's piano accompaniment was ideal and just as authentic.

Ryan said the Mojave Historical Society recently commissioned him to write a rag. The result was "Goffs Rag," named for the "pioneer" town of Goffs, which Ryan said is visible (and visit-able) as part of "a Western town Route 66 road trip." A lively yet lovely piano rag, "Goffs" offers a flowing opening section with inventive harmonies and a straightforward yet equally inventive second theme. The subdued section C leads into a fun and lively ride-out closing theme. Ryan closed his set with his up-tempo rendition of "Reflection Rag, prefaced by his exposition of his theory that at least part of "Reflection Rag" was an early draft of "Searchlight Rag."

As his (and the afternoon's) closing set, Vincent continued his wonderful Confrey and Bloom tribute with three selections: Zez's "Nickel in the Slot" and Bloom's "Southern Charms" and "Spring Fever." From 1923, "Nickel" is a first-rate Confrey Novelty that rarely gets any kind of exposure from ragtimers. Its A theme features a jazz break and a fantastic descending passage at the halfway point (measures 7 and 8). The third strain is the piece's highlight, with unpredictable modulations and a great passage at the halfway point that this time ascends before descending.

Bloom's "Charms," from 1934, is another rarity, but also one of Vincent's signature numbers. The composer gave the piece a lovely flow that's an expert combination of pretty sounds with blazing energy and vitality – facets all presented with polish and tremendous style by Vincent. From 1926, "Spring Fever" is perhaps the most famous of all of Bloom's works and yet another of Vincent's signature tunes. With this set, as with his earlier sets, Vincent's playing is simply astonishing. True, it has always been first-rate, but that fact has been even more noticeable over the last few years, during which his repertoire has increased by a considerable degree.

The diversity of material performed at the April musicale contributed greatly to everyone's enjoyment. Ragtime performers and fans have been coming to Spice Social for nearly a year now, showing time and again why so many enjoy and are devoted to this charming, inventive, often intricate music and the seemingly inexhaustible creativity of those who compose and perform it.


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