June 2023 show leisurely, yet filled with superb selections
OCRS's show at Spice Social on June 24 was leisurely paced, with a late starting time and abrupt conclusion. Musicians drifted in during the first hour, each making his way up to the piano. In all, eight pianists performed 27 selections. In addition to six of Joplin's rags (and one of his collaborations), the focus was on the compositions of Max Morath and Tom Brier, for reasons we'll get into later in this report.
Andrew Barrett opened his first set with Willie the Lion Smith's immortal "Echo of Spring." Next up was a fine example of early ragtime: "Hiawatha" by Charles N. Daniels, written under the pen name of Neil Moret. Andrew's performance is notably relaxed and lyrical. More lyricism could be heard in "This One's for Estee," an intricate rag Andrew said he first wrote in 2008 (after a breakup with his then-girlfriend, Estee), then reworked in 2022.
Barry Blakeley took a successful shot at "Scott Joplin's New Rag," one of the composer's more difficult piano rags.
Bob Pinsker expertly performed two rarities from the vintage era: "Step Along, Henry," a 1916 foxtrot by Abe Olman (1887-1984), who was an almost exact contemporary of Eubie Blake, and the one-step "Who's Who," which is likely the rarest (as in difficult to find) of the ragtime-era compositions of Melville Morris, best known as the composer of "The Kangaroo Hop." Incidentally, Morris seems to have been even longer-lived than Olman, with his lifespan reportedly being 1888-1987, similar to that of the best-known composer who was a contemporary of Blake, Olman, and Morris, that being Irving Berlin (1888-1989).
Christian Marino offered the opening theme of "The Entertainer," then segued into the A and B themes of "Maple Leaf."
Barry returned to the piano to honor a request by Christian's sister for "Pine Apple Rag."
Vincent Johnson offered a nicely varied set of Classic ragtime, Novelty and Stride, starting with Joplin's masterful "Euphonic Sounds." Next up was "Polar Pep" by Bill Wirges, in honor of his upcoming birthday. Wirges was born in Buffalo, NY, on June 26, 1894, and composed a raft of Novelties with "chilly" titles – e.g. "Over the Ice," "Igloo Stomp" and "Snow Shoes,” which Wirges wrote during his long engagement as pianist of Harry Reser's famous Cliquot Club Eskimos band.
Next up was the James P. Johnson masterpiece from 1917 entitled "Daintiness Rag,” played by Vincent in a smooth yet rollicking style similar to Johnson's polished 1947 recording. Vincent closed his set with a great rendition of Joplin and Hayden's 1901 composition "Sunflower Slow Drag".
Max Libertor gave us two Tom Brier rags: the lovely, bluesy "Crescent Moon" and the all-stops-out Novelty "Wind 'Em Up." Like nearly every Brier original, both are magnificent.
Andrew returned with “X.L. Rag," a great early (1903) rag by L. Edgar Settle, then the rare Jimmy Monaco song "Row, Row, Row." Monaco wrote the music and William Jerome the lyrics to this 1912 song that was so successful, it was interpolated into that year's edition of the Ziegfeld Follies. Andrew, of course, skipped the vocal component to focus on the music, which he performs in the style of Pete Wendling's well-known piano roll arrangements.
Johnny Hodges delivered Andy Razaf's 1928 song “My Handy Man," one of his great signature tunes.
Bob announced that in case anyone hadn't heard, the great Max Morath passed away on Father's Day Sunday at the age of 96. During ragtime's revival years, Morath pioneered multiple activities that brought the music to the public's attention and kept it there. Not the least of his accomplishments were his extraordinary ragtime compositions, so Bob crafted an outstanding tribute set, starting with "The Golden Hours," a meditative, elegiac rag written in memory of Harriet Janis and first published in the 1966 Oak Publications edition of the book she wrote in collaboration with Rudi Blesh, "They All Played Ragtime."
After regaling us with stories of the various occasions during which he had contact and interacted with Max, Bob played "Poverty Gulch," one of a handful rags in the composer's "Cripple Creek" suite. Bob closed with yet another lyrical, Classic-style Morath rag, "One for Amelia." Published in 1964 and titled and written as an homage to Joseph F. Lamb's second wife, who kept up Lamb's legacy in the years after his death, it's perhaps Morath's most poetic and haunting ragtime composition.
Taking off from conversation around the table regarding tempo markings on Joplin's rags, Eric Marchese offered the monumental "Fig Leaf Rag," often considered Joplin's greatest rag second only to "Maple Leaf." As a nod to Tom Brier, Eric played 1911's "Texas Tommy Swing," a great piece featured in that year's Follies and recorded by Brier on his first solo piano album. The name of Lee S. Roberts arose in conversation in connection with his touring the U.S. with a recording piano used to make piano rolls, so Eric played "Blue Moon," a 1918 piece Roberts published that he co-wrote with Max Kortlander.
Three of the afternoon's last four pieces – two performed by Bob, one by Andrew – were written by Brier. Bob announced that at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival earlier in the month, Brier was named as the recipient of the festival's Lifetime Achievement Award (later presented to him in person back at his home in northern California), which prompted him to spotlight Brier's work.
Bob opened and closed his set with "Cedar Valley Strut" and "Balderdash." Published in 2004 and dedicated to Bob Bradford, "Cedar Valley" is a typical Brier rag, jam-packed with inventive inspiration and a raft of musical devices. Bob noted that the printed score offers a great example of Tom Brier's sly sense of humor: In reproducing what is the engraver's identification of each page's plate (in small type at the bottom of each page), the word “Strut" is replaced with a succession of similar-sounding words, each more absurd than the previous. Bob poured his energies into the fantastic "Balderdash," adding a Brier-like twist during the finale, playing the closing theme first as written, then surprising us by modulating to a new key a half-step higher.
Between his Brier homage selections, Bob offered "Sponge," an outstanding yet rarely performed rag by W.C. Simon. Published in New Orleans in 1911, the rag alternates between two strikingly varied moods: One section (and its written variation) is dark, mysterious and almost forbidding; one is superficially optimistic, yet just below the surface has a stark poignancy.Andrew returned us to Brier with Tom's "Elephant Tracks," yet another masterpiece (this one from circa 2004-2005) by our dear ragtime friend, ending an afternoon of wonderful music that he would have loved.
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