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January '23 OCRS: Classic rags, other genres, and a very special guest performer
The January 2023 OCRS meet at Spice Social turned out to be a really wonderful one, featuring many Classic rags played on the piano and also on the 5-string banjo by a very special guest performer!
Bob Pinsker, pressed into service as MC at the last possible moment by Eric Marchese's feeling distinctly under the weather, kicked off the afternoon promptly at 1:30 with a set of three Classic rags, which is sort of uncharacteristic of him. He started with what Bob called his "commercial song," because it's short enough to dash over to the piano in the living room when a TV ad is on and not miss any of the program. This is Tom Turpin's 1900 publication "A Ragtime Nightmare," which takes only a bit more than a minute to play as written. Next was Joplin's masterpiece published in 1899, though apparently composed a bit earlier, the "Maple Leaf Rag." The set concluded with James Scott's 1909 publication "Great Scott Rag." Bob explained that Scott was not so egotistical as to give that piece that title, which in this case we know because the composer's manuscript survives - there is no title on the MS, backing up the assertion that has been made several times that James Scott submitted his manuscripts to publishers without titles and that the titles are the inventions of the publishers.
Barry Blakeley stepped up to the Spice Social spinet for a set. Barry told us that he had been a student of Johnny Hodges, OCRS stalwart, quite a while back, and that he'd subbed for Johnny on some occasions at The North Woods Inn many years ago. Barry started with a continuation of the Classic rag theme, with an uptempo, very clean performance of Joplin's 1901 piece "The Easy Winners." He then favored us with an original, "The Traffic Jam," also in the classic rag style. Barry mentioned that while he had started writing the piece in 1977, it had lain unfinished for a long time, awaiting Barry to be inspired by his attendance at the October 2022 OCRS meet. He then completed the composition in November. The explanation of the title was that the mild dissonances in the first strain made him think of antique car horns. The piece features a minor key strain in the middle of the trio section, and then ends in the major key. Gratified by the audience's enthusiastic response, Barry then played another original in a very different style, which was named after the famous New Orleans street: "Rampart Street Stomp." This indeed was in a New Orleans swinging style, with little bluesy touches; Barry said he wrote the piece in about 1998. The set-closer was another original in yet another style. "Every Stormy Cloud Comes With a Silver Lining or Two" is really a popular song in the style of the 1930s, without a lyric; it sounded as though it might go well in a musical. Indeed, Barry told us that he'd seen a production of "Carousel" and was inspired to try his hand at composing such a tune.
By the end of Barry's set, the audience had filled in, and several more performers had appeared. Vincent Johnson was next to step onto the stage. Vincent gave us a set of pieces composed in New York by African-American composers in the late 1920s and 1930s, anticipating February's Black History Month, beginning with Willie "The Lion" Smith's 1935 masterpiece "Echo of Spring." Vincent's left thumb anticipated the beat, spelling out a tenor line in a truly period-appropriate style in much of this arabesque, almost certainly Willie's most popular composition today. Next up was Fats Waller's "Alligator Crawl," which reportedly was originally copyrighted in 1925 as an unpublished piano solo called "House Party Stomp" but then published under the snappier title as an orchestration in 1927. Fats's recording as a piano solo in 1934 is regarded by most as the definitive version of the tune, and that is what Vincent's performance was based on. His version had a wonderful lighter-than-air lilt to it which no doubt would have been greatly appreciated by Fats. Vincent's great set ended with a late thirties composition by Fats's teacher, James P. Johnson - the poetic "Blueberry Rhyme." So Vincent's set encompassed the "Big Three" of Harlem Stride: Johnson, Smith, and Waller.
Christian Marino gave us our second rendition of "Maple Leaf Rag" of the afternoon, choosing a deliberate tempo in an effort to bring out the details of Joplin's work. Next, Max Libertor, who had just turned 15, blew everyone away with a spectacular set, beginning with Tom Brier's 2004 virtuostic novelty "Spasmodic." Staying with Max's hero Tom's work, next up was the earlier Brier composition "Razor Blades" (1994) with its famous riff of the chromatic two-handed glissandi in octaves in the second strain. Tom would doubtless be very pleased with Max's rousing renditions of these pieces. Libertor ended his set with another novelty, this one at a slightly more moderate tempo, "Eskimo" Bill Wirges's 1927 "Igloo Stomp (Will Thaw Icycles [sic])," a piece brought out of obscurity by Alex Hassan. Max's set was an altogether brilliant one.
Another young musician, Sam Choi, whose stage name is "Thivaluma" (you can look him up on YouTube), took to the Spice Social stage. Sam's repertoire does not encompass ragtime at the moment, but he loves the music. He played an excerpt from a larger composition of his entitled "Clone Concert," about five minutes long. This work in a style that might be called progressive pop features sudden unexpected right-hand runs that are real fireworks.
Vincent Johnson had brought with him a very special guest, his long-time friend in the Los Angeles music scene, the world-famous folk and blues multi-instrumentalist Jerron Paxton. Jerron originally hails from Los Angeles, where he was in the same musical circles as John Reed-Torres and Vincent about a decade ago, and he subsequently moved his base of operations to New York City. He is in town visiting family, and was kind enough to favor us with a performance at this OCRS. Jerron produced his authentic 1894 banjo and played a couple of rags accompanied by Vincent on piano. First up was Joplin's "Original Rags." Jerron's period instrument did not need any microphone or amplifier to fill the space with a truly authentic sound, which brought to mind the fact that the earliest recordings of rags as played by solo instruments were with banjos that sounded like this, e.g. Vess Ossman or Fred Van Eps, as a solo piano did not record well under the acoustic process (pre-1925). Next up was the James Scott "Ragtime Oriole," which really sounded great on the banjo. Jerron mentioned that Scott's work was not written with the banjo in mind, so playing the work on the banjo is not easy, "but sometimes you have to struggle for what you love." Indeed! After that, Vincent returned to the audience and Jerron produced what he called his "20-dollar Stradivarius," which turned out to be a small harmonica. He then proceeded to astound the audience with a virtuoso performance of "ragtime harmonica" in which he somehow manages to produce what sounds like multiple voices simultaneously. If that were not enough, Jerron accompanied himself with the small percussion instrument, the bones, in his right hand.
Realizing that following Jerron's amazing set was hardly an enviable position, Bob P decided to fall on his sword at this point. Bob started with one of his piano roll transcriptions, a tune entitled "Sugar Dew Blues" from a ten-tune orchestrion roll which is widely thought to be composed and played by James Blythe. It's an early boogie piece with a left hand part that varies from a compact figure to a walking bass to a stride sort of thing. The piece ends by an unexpected modulation from C major to ending with an E-flat chord, which Bob pointed out is an early example of what has been called "the E- flat obsession" - Jimmy Yancey later seemed to end every piece in E-flat, regardless of what key the rest of the piece had been in! Next up was what was certainly the OCRS premier of the recently discovered "The Ed. Faye" march by Henry Lodge, from 1905. This piece is among the earliest publications of Lodge, and does not appear in any of the standard compendia of piano rags, but as Fred Brodie recently pointed out, it's more of a rag than many of the early compositions that do appear on such lists. Bob "ragged" the final repeat of the trio strain to emphasize the point. Bob's set ended with a real obscurity by Willie the Lion Smith entitled "Lullaby to an Empty Bandstand," published in 1940 but never recorded by Willie. It's a gentle piece, as you might expect from the title, but it was well received by the audience of about 20 at Spice Social.
Ron Ross came up to the stage to perform a set of his compositions, beginning with "I'm Passing By Pasadena," which is a song but Ron said he didn't feel like singing the lyric. Ron told us that he "believes it's a ragtime song," which is good enough for us! He followed with his instrumental composition that he named after his Baldwin spinet, "The Acrosonic Rag." The rag ends with a strutting, grandioso version of the final theme, as often was the case in the ragtime period. Ron wrapped up with his "Nostalgia Tango," which he composed around 2005.
At this juncture, all of the musicians present that wished to play had done so, so it was time for the encore sets. Barry Blakeley was convinced to return to the stage, where he continued the Classic rag theme of the day with the third version of Maple Leaf Rag of the afternoon, featuring variations on each repeat and a tag not present in the originally published version. Joplin's 1909 masterwork "Pine Apple Rag" followed in a very beautiful, spirited rendition.
Vincent Johnson's encore solo set started with what might be considered a continuation of the Harlem pianists featured in his first set, this time the 1916 composition of Clarence Williams, who was a good friend of the "Big Three," their publisher, and eventually the neighbor of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller in the Jamaica section of Queens in the 1930s — "Wildflower Rag." Williams had published the composition in New Orleans, but the version he recorded in 1928 constituted a major revision, and it was this later version that inspired Vincent's performance of this two-strain composition. Next Vincent told us that he was thinking of the fact that by SoCal standards it had been quite cold recently, so naturally he gave us a beautiful rendition of Joe Lamb's late masterpiece "The Alaskan Rag." Vincent concluded his encore set with what has been called "The national anthem of Stride," James P. Johnson's seminal "Carolina Shout."
After Bob utilized his prerogative as MC to get everyone to sing a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" in honor of his wife Lisa and his mother-in-law Maggie Richardson, both of whom were present to acknowledge the sentiment, Max Libertor returned for his encores. He showed that he is not limited to spectacular novelties by playing L. Edgar Settle's sole published piano rag "X.L. Rag" (1903) in a romping, stomping performance of this folksy piece. Max finished with a return to his favored spectacular style with the contemporary composer Max Keenlyside's "Airplane To Chicago," which Max rendered with a stride feel. The second strain of this piece starts with a rapid-fire left-hand-right-hand exchange that reminds one of the similar spot in Brier's earlier piece "Razor Blades" that Max had played in his first set. Again, Max handled these difficulties with aplomb, or perhaps we could say that he took them "in stride!"
Jerron Paxton was urged to retake the stage for an encore set, with which he graciously obliged us. He began with a breath-taking performance of George Washington Thomas's "Muscle Shoals Blues" on solo harmonica. He then picked up his banjo and played a solo concluding with a vocal. Then Vincent came up to provide piano backing for another banjo and piano rendition of another Classic rag, this time Turpin's "St. Louis Rag." At the start of the performance, it wasn't completely clear which of the performers was setting the tempo, leading Jerron to ask Vincent "who's driving?," which was answered "you are!" It was truly wonderful to have Paxton perform for us at this OCRS and all present hope that he can return another time.
Again, Bob took on the task of following the essentially un-followable, and played the obscure James P. Johnson song "Something's Gonna Happen to Me and You" (1931), which was used in the score of the 1931 version of the musical "Sugar Hill." He followed with his most recent piano roll transcription, done this month, of the James Blythe composition "47th Street Stomp," as played on a 10-tune orchestrion roll. Bob observed that, strangely enough, the piano roll piece of that title has nothing to do with the relatively simple tune that Blythe recorded on 78 with a band with that title! The piano roll piece is in the characteristic form that Blythe used, with three themes, each repeated, all in the same key, with a 4-bar intro and a 4-bar tag. In this case, the first strain is a version of the tune he recorded as "Armour Avenue Struggle," and the second strain is very much inspired by a section of James P. Johnson's seminal 1921 piano roll arrangement of Handy's "Loveless Love." The final strain is a simple blues riff that occurs frequently in Blythe's performances and is very much the kind of thing that eventually turned into rock-n-roll.
Ron Ross played his composition "Obediah's Jumpsuit," after explaining that the piece he was about to play has that title, but "don't ask me why!" He wrapped up with an original song, which he told us was "not a Christmas song," called "What Would My Jewish Mother Say If I Wrote A Christmas Song?" Fortunately for us, Ron did sing this one to his own accompaniment. Bob closed out the afternoon with Eubie Blake's "Charleston Rag," ending a remarkable OCRS meet that included 39 selections played by eight performers on piano, banjo, harmonica and even the "bones"!
The dates of the next two OCRS meets were announced: Saturday, February 18 and Saturday, March 18, both at Spice Social, starting at around 2:00 each time. See you then!
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