December ragtime, by composer birthdates, copyrights and selections that tie into Christmastime
A slightly abbreviated OCRS session at Half Off Books fielded a performer lineup of Barry Blakeley, Max Libertor and Eric Marchese.
This trio of pianists performed a total of 31 selections, many of which were written by composers born in December and a handful more that were copyrighted this month, along with some selections geared toward the Christmas season.
Perhaps surprisingly, the ragtime works of composers Joseph F. Lamb and Charles L. Johnson, the most famous (and prolific) December-born ragtime composers, were mostly absent -- but these two giants are typically well represented throughout the year, so the dearth of their music wasn't as acutely felt as it might have been.
Also, thanks to Max, we heard a generous selection of piano works by Tom Brier, and Barry and Eric offered pieces of their own creation, yielding a December musicale unlike any other from recent years.
Eric opened the afternoon with a rag by Abe Olman, who was born in Cincinnati on December 20, 1888 and wound up later in life here in Southern California (he passed in Rancho Mirage in 1984). "Cheerful Blues," issued in Chicago in 1917 by Ted Browne Music Co., is an ingenious, singular composition that makes use of tangy dissonances and whose first three themes are in Eb and Ab major before an abrupt but effective bridge into the finale, which is in D major.
Next was "Augustan Club Waltzes," one of Joplin's early (1901) non-ragtime compositions and among his best light classical-style waltzes. After that, we heard "Please Say You Will," a waltz-tempo verse-chorus song notable not for its sentimental, Victorian-era lyrics, but in that it's the first piece of published music carrying Joplin's name, published in 1895 when the budding composer and his Texas Medley Quartette had toured as far north and east as Syracuse, NY, where the piece was published.
An audience member requested "The Entertainer," so Eric obliged, noting that, by happenstance, the rag was copyrighted on December 29, 1902.
Taking his cue from hearing what is among Joplin's most well-known rags, Barry gave us his own barrel-house, honky-tonk version of its first two themes, patterned after Dick Wellstood's published arrangement.
Next up was another loose, funky, jazzy and bluesy version of an established ragtime work, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," with a few bars of "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River") as an intro/lead-in for the immortal 1911 Irving Berlin ragtime song. Barry plays the famed piece with tons of energy and pep in a great arrangement that avoids the obvious and which Barry says is from a MIDI of Perfesser Bill Edwards' arrangement.
Paving the way for Christmas, Barry then delivered three holiday selections: First, his own arrangement of "Jingle Bells," another creatively bluesy, barrel-house handling that leans heavily on the music of New Orleans, using breaks, walking bass figures and other devices to add aural interest to a familiar tune. Next up: Harry Connick's version (from the "When Harry Met Sally" soundtrack recording) of "Winter Wonderland," an enjoyably loose and truly funky styling of the seasonal classic.
Barry closed his wonderful set with his own arrangement of "White Christmas" -- not only his second Irving Berlin selection of the day, but one that incorporates the best features of boogie (such as an exciting eight-to-the-bar bass) into a ragtime format.
Charles L. Johnson was born December 3, 1876, in Kansas City, Kansas, and spent his entire life and career there and in Kansas City, Mo., had a huge hit with "Dill Pickles" in 1906, and wrote more than 30 rags among his 200 published works. Of these, Eric chose "Teasing the Cat." Issued by Forster of Chicago in 1916, the rag combines the three-over-four device, foxtrot rhythms and other familiar ragtime devices in a way that freshens them up and sparks our interest as listeners. Eric also displayed the rag's wonderful color cover, which depicts a scraggly alley cat perched on a fence, apparently yowling loudly, as evidenced by the shoe flying through the air about to hit the poor feline.
A mention of Charles "Doc" Cooke's most famous piece, "Blame It on the Blues," prompted Eric to provide a spontaneous performance of it. He followed that with Chauvin and Joplin's "Heliotrope Bouquet," noting that it was copyrighted on December 23, 1907.
Barry returned to the stage to enliven the audience with his potent rendering of "The Easy Winners." He and Eric then turned the piano over to Max (who had arrived a few minutes earlier) for four consecutive selections of the works of Tom Brier, the scores of which were pulled from a sizable stack of photocopies set atop the piano.
The first of Max's pieces was "Evening Mist," a poignant Brier essay from 2006. Its haunting early themes skillfully use the minor tonality, leading into a torrid, stormy trio and a powerful finale. Maintaining the slow-tempo, delicate feel, Max then offered "Sunlight and Shadow Waltz," a lovely, classical-style waltz from 1999. As with all of Brier's pieces, this one brims with deeply-felt emotions, all beautifully expressed by Max's sensitive playing.
Next came "Meditation" from a decade later. Its soft, wisftul main theme, which opens and closes the piece, features a high-octave, single-note treble that fluctuates between the major and the minor. A high point is the rag's trio, which creates an almost Bach-like meshing of melody, bass and chords.
Max closed this all-Brier set with yet another haunting essay, "Reverie Rag," a much earlier (1991) creation whose melancholy, minor-tinged A theme yields to a more major-key second theme. Section C offers a more positive emotional tone and outlook (sparked by Max's fine bass embellishments), leading smoothly into a potent, Joplin-like finale.
Eric hooked into his previous Cooke selection by offering a less well-known rag by that composer. "Such Is Life," copyrighted December 30, 1915, and published in New York City, has an extroverted opening section and a strutting second subject, then a more subdued trio that leads back into a final iteration of the great A theme, making for a socko ending.
"Dicty-Doo" is what Eric notes is an "ingenious" rag by Carey Morgan, who was born December 25, 1885 in Macon, Georgia, and who is perhaps best known to ragtimers as having co-written "Bugle Call Rag" with Eubie Blake. Stern of New York City issued this wonderful foxtrot in 1914. Dedicating the piece to "The Right Quintette," Morgan inventively incorporates touches of Harlem Stride into a standard, three-theme rag foxtrot -- and the opening theme, which is brought back to close the piece, ends with a four-bar phrase that resounds heavily with the influence of blues music.
Relating the story of how a family member suggested (however jokingly) that a rag suited for Christmastime was needed, Eric latched onto the idea and penned the first half of "A New England Yuletide" in early 1990, completing the piece nearly two years later (in December, 1991). The four-part, classic-style rag, he said, was meant to elicit his memories of wistful, wintry Christmastimes in his native Massachusetts -- notably, visions of lighting displays reflecting on the snow-covered landscapes during drives home from visits with grandparents. While the rag's intro briefly quotes "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and its trio leans on the harmonic structure of the verse section of "Jingle Bells," it's otherwise wholly original.
Max had a few more Briers at the ready, so he related the existence of a Tom Brier Discord Server on which various visitors had posted what they opined as "the five most difficult" of Brier's works.
Saying he had heard of one such piece, "White Lightning," where the bass "was reversed" from that of most ragtime, with a "chord-octave, chord-octave" left hand, Max reported how got hold of an MP3 of the 1999 rag, then obtained a score of it. What a marvel to see Max skillfully execute the backwards bass of this piece, which throws so many challenges at the pianist that in its entirety (and not just the "backwards bass"), it can only be described as fiendishly difficult.
Yet another Brier opus that sets the bar high: "Balderdash Fox Trot" (2001), with its minor-key yet two-fisted A theme, second section featuring call-and-response in the treble, and more jovial and good-natured third subject.
Before giving us three more outstanding Briers (how many of his aren't top-notch?), Max gave us a stunning, breathtaking rendition of Luckey Roberts's "Junk Man Rag," setting it in D-flat major as the home key and executing the trio in the even more difficult key of B-major. Max said the key signatures and driving tempo fit how Roberts himself played the piece, which is one of the greatest Harlem Stride works of all time. He's unfurled this one for us at previous OCRS shows, and it's a treat every time.
"Clover Land," "Szechuan-on-the-Left" and "Spasmodic" were Max's final three Briers of the day (but not his final turns at the piano). "Clover Land" is a 2000 excursion by Brier into the Popular Rag style, "Szechuan" (2003) has two exciting themes and a Novelty-style trio that leads into a wild, demanding ride-out strain, and "Spasmodic," Max noted, was once a regular part of his repertoire and performance schedule -- and, as he said, "definitely one of Tom Brier's best ever."
Barry had two originals that helped cap an afternoon made memorable by his and Max's performances. From the mid-'90s, "Rampart Street Stomp" is a funky, hard-driving piano essay that clearly captures the New Orleans milieu and that's so two-fisted in nature, it seems to mirror the ragtime output of Les Copeland. At the very least, it's the kind of piano piece Copeland would have loved.
This great stomp was followed by a second Storyville-style Blakeley original also from around 1995: The funky and hugely enjoyable "Every Stormy Cloud Comes With a Silver Lining." Barry then closed his last set with his up-tempo version of Hayden and Joplin's 1900 masterpiece "Sunflower Slow Drag."
Max took the piano one last time to take us home with one vintage, then one contemporary selection. First was "The Cyclone," a rarely heard 1923 Novelty by Ferde Grofe. The final piece of this eclectic and fun afternoon of piano was "The Seagull Shuffle," a 2010 rag by Martin Spitznagel whose intro mimics the sound of seagulls its composer had heard and which inspired not just the opening bars, but an entire piano rag.
This was undoubtedly an unusual OCRS performance, but one made worthwhile by the contributions of all three pianists. The mixture of tie-ins to the month of December (either birthdate- or copyright-wise or seasonal) with the total of nine Brier compositions and seven solo or collaborative works by Joplin created a pleasing variety of music with a through-line firmly connected to this time of year. Happy holidays, everyone, and we'll see you next year!
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