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January 2023: Eve Elliott makes her OCRS debut at Nixon Library
The new year was just a few weeks old when OCRS hosted its third concert at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum since that venue rebooted its Sunday concert series in July of 2022.
It was January 29, which coincidentally was Johnny Hodges’ birthday. Johnny shared the stage with Eric Marchese, whose birthday was a week later.
But the big news was the appearance of Eve Elliott. The reigning old-time piano-playing champion proved her skills with numerous demonstrations of her mind-boggling talents. That this was her first time appearing at the Nixon Library and her debut in an OCRS event were icing on the cake.
The afternoon began and ended with a Classic rag, and the audience heard one rag apiece from each of Classic ragtime’s “Big Three” – and yet the sum total was a well- rounded program encompassing multiple subgenres: Popular, Tin Pan Alley, jazz, blues and contemporary ragtime.
Eric got things rolling with one of his favorite Joplin rags, “The Sycamore,” relating its importance in the composer’s development from his earliest working period, populated with optimistic rags with triumphal finales, to the mature works of his second phase. Published in Chicago in 1904, “The Sycamore” was the first of a string of masterpieces that stretches over five years. Eric’s second piece was Charles “Doc” Cooke’s outstanding rag “Such Is Life,” published by Remick in 1915.
Johnny started with a socko, two-fisted performance of “Dill Pickles,” one of the most popular rags ever written, incorporating numerous flourishes and delivering what should be regarded as a patented, Disneyland-style rendition of Charles L. Johnson’s greatest and most successful piano rag.
His second number is “When You Were Sweet Sixteen,” another Hodges specialty. Johnny related the song’s background, and how James Thornton wrote the music and lyrics especially for his wife, famed singer Bonnie Thornton. Those paying close attention noticed that Johnny slyly interpolated “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” into his heavily ornamented rendition of the piece, which was published in 1898.
Eve chose two of the greatest classic rags of all time for her opening set: Scott’s “Efficiency” and Lamb’s “Ethiopia.” Her playing style is animated, yet smooth and controlled, and both pieces served to showcase her tremendous ability to embellish within the framework of each individual rag. “Efficiency” sets a high bar for any pianist, yet Eve makes it even more of a challenge for herself by adding numerous fills and flourishes. She puts her own stamp on “Ethiopia” as well, yet provides a beautiful touch which magnifies that monumental rag’s stature as one of the greatest rags ever.
Eric announced he’d close with another obscure teens rag and an original, and that they just happened to have “sun” and “moon” in their titles. He opened with “A Sunset Idyll,” a lyrical classic rag he self-published in the early ’90s, displaying the color photo of a stunning sunset taken by his sister and used on the printed version’s cover. He closed with “Blue Moon,” a wonderful collaboration between Max Kortlander and Lee S. Roberts that Roberts published in Chicago in 1918.
Johnny encored with two of his signature numbers: First, a beautifully bluesy version of the famed gospel tune “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” starting out with a measured, relaxed, achingly lovely pace, then building the intensity level. He closed with the ever-popular “Sweet Georgia Brown,” taken at a slow romp but then, gradually, picking up steam until Johnny flips the switch and dives into a double-time, one-step tempo that’s breathtaking.
Eve closed with the afternoon’s second contemporary rag and, finally and fittingly, another Classic rag. In performing “The Poltergeist,” she became the first OCRS performer to play one of William Bolcom’s rags on the Theater 37 stage and the first OCRS pianist to play that particular piece. Sounding as if a mischievous spirit has invaded a piano and is controlling its keys, it’s a heady mixture of classical music, jazz and ragtime. The piece is phenomenal, and so is Eve’s performance of it.
As with her other Classic rags, Eve’s rendition of Hayden and Joplin’s “Sunflower Slow Drag” is entirely original, a singular, up-tempo arrangement with distinctive yet appropriate embellishments.
Those audience members who stuck around were treated to the afternoon’s 13th selection when Eve tossed off an impromptu performance of “Graceful Ghost,” the first of Bolcom’s “Three Ghost Rags” (“Poltergeist” being the second).
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