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Virtual February plus ragtime-era and contemporary selections yield a satisfying March 2023 performance
The March OCRS at Spice Social gave us a second consecutive month celebrating great ragtime composers born in February – what we've come to refer to as "virtual February" – along with some surprises. The performance featured eight ragtime pianists – Andrew Barrett, Pedro Bernardez, Barry Blakely, Vincent Johnson, Max Libertor, Eric Marchese, Bob Pinsker and Ron Ross – who played plenty of vintage ragtime along with some contemporary selections. In fact, the afternoon was nearly evenly divided between pieces by those born in February, vintage works from the ragtime era, and contemporary rags.
Pedro's first set featured two Joplins and one contemporary. His renditions of "The Easy Winners" and "Original Rags" offered enjoyably creative embellishments. He wound up his set with Ron Ross' "Nostalgia – A Tango," a pretty piece with a notably moody second theme.
Ron himself then delivered a set of originals: the lovely ragtime waltz "Cloudy," the comedic ragtime song "The Tesla Song" ("Charge me up – I'm ready to go!") and "The Ragtime Song." Ron's compositions are singular, and while there's almost no one better suited to present them, this afternoon two of Ron's peers featured his work.
Eric gave us the first February composer of the day with James Scott's outstanding 1911 rag "Quality" which, like Joplin's "Fig Leaf" of 1908 was subtitled "A High Class Rag." The piece is among best the best by Scott (born February 12, 1885 in Neosho, Mo.) but doesn't get much performance among today's ragtimers. Eric said it has long been one of his favorites, his rendition reflecting that enthusiasm. He then served up two great rags from the teens: Harry Jentes' outstanding "The Bantam Step" (1916) and Charles Doc Cooke's "Such Is Life," published in Chicago in 1915. "Bantam Step" features unusual harmonies within the framework of a fad animal dance, in this case evoking roosters cavorting around a barnyard. "Such Is Life" is less well-known than Cooke's "Blame It on the Blues" but no less distinctive. Eric's playing emphasizes the strutting character of the main (A) and second themes and the clever phrasing of the more subdued third section.
Andrew kept the February tribute going with Joe Jordan's "Pekin Rag." From 1904, it's an homage to the Pekin Theatre in Chicago, where Jordan (born in Cincinnati February 11, 1882) was music director in the early 20th century. Next was an original, "Andrew Barrett's Rag," a classic-style rag with two sweet opening themes followed by an inventive third section with fine bass work and unusual harmonies. Andrew closed his set with a second piece by a February composer, "Keep Off the Grass" by the great James P. Johnson (born Feb. 1, 1894 in New Brunswick, NJ), giving us a terrific performance of this rarely played Johnson piece, which has a fantastic opening theme and an incredible third section.
Barry related how, at age nine, he was captivated by the score of "The Sting" when it came out in 1973. He delivered what's considered the movie's theme number, a nicely paced (read: not too fast) rendering of "The Entertainer" Barry said is "very influenced by Marvin Hamlisch." Barry told us that "a few years later" he created " a honky-tonk version" of the piece, noting that he knew it was "sacrilege" but enjoyed the new arrangement just the same. His creative arrangement is swingy and a lot busier than the original score, and it features just the two sections (A and B) featured in the film. Next, more Joplin inspired by "The Sting": "Solace – A Mexican Serenade" and, to close his set, the late-era Joplin rag "Scott Joplin's New Rag" (not used in the famed film). Barry has a wonderful feel for Joplin's music, and his playing shows how much he enjoys performing the King of Ragtime Composers' pieces.
Vincent noted that as we didn't want to miss the chance to honor ragtimers born in March, he wanted to feature works by Chauvin (born March 13, 1881) and Hayden (born March 31, 1882). So we heard "Heliotrope Bouquet," whose opening themes were by Chauvin and salvaged by Joplin, and "Sunflower Slow Drag." "Heliotrope" spotlights Chauvin's distinctive, idiosyncratic compositional style, beautifully essayed by Vincent, whose performance of "Sunflower" is an up-tempo one. Vincent closed his set with "Blueberry Rhyme," the second James P. Johnson piece of the day. An unusual selection that's rarely performed, it's intricate, yet notably dreamy and ethereal. This set showcased Vincent's trademark expert touch and superb pianistics. The classics are handled with taste and the Stride number proved lyrical yet exciting.
Bob gave us two more James Scotts, both from late in the ragtime era: "Dixie Dimples" and "Modesty Rag," and yet another James P. Johnson. Bob noted that it's remarkable how "Dixie Dimples" anticipates "The Old Piano Roll Blues" (in a snippet of the second theme) by 30 years (Scott's rag is 1919; "Blues" is from 1949), while "Modesty" is among Scott's most lusciously lyrical compositions. Bob gave "Dimples" the proper lilt and likewise lent "Modesty" what it needs most: the poetic lyricism its composer expresses in the score.
Bob's next selection was a surprise: Another vintage piece, this one by James P., that recently came to light. He introduced it by relating information about jazz historian Floyd Levin, who founded an Orange County jazz festival among many other musical activities. While Johnson was in Los Angeles for the show "Sugar Hill," Levin visited him at the home he rented from the Mills Brothers, bringing along a tape recorder to do some interviews. Along with Johnson's comments were performances of some of his pieces, including one Levin didn't recognize. Inquiring about the piece Levin described as an "unfamiliar up-tempo number," Johnson answered "it's just a rag, Floyd." Bob said that since the recording "just showed up two weeks ago" on Lewis Porter's blog [this tune was known to be missing from Levin's recordings issued on the very hard to find Pumpkin LP "Ain'tcha Got Music" from 1986], he (Bob) began transcribing it and arranging it for piano. Performing the first strain for us in what is perhaps its first live performance since Johnson's, Bob noted that the opening section is a variation of "Carolina Shout" (transposed to A-flat major) and that while the second and third themes (that Bob hasn't completed transcribing yet - but wait until next month!) aren't especially distinguished, they're definitely in Johnson's clearly recognizable style. Hearing this fragment underscored Bob's dedication to seeking out ragtime compositions unknown to most of us and allowing us to hear them, thus renewing a place for the pieces in ragtime history.
To close his set, Bob gave us another Joe Jordan, announcing its title as "The 'Midnight' Todalo" (to avert anyone taking offense at Jordan's use of a then-commonplace term). From 1910 and subtitled "A Raggy Rag," it's perhaps Jordan's greatest solo instrumental. Most outstanding about "Todalo" is the way in which it clearly evokes the milieu of Turpin's Rosebud Bar, where the likes of Jordan, Chauvin, Joplin, Sam Patterson and others congregated to share their music with each other, and Bob's top-notch performance of it makes us feel like we're hanging out at the Rosebud with them.
Max Libertor gave us three of Tom Brier's wonderful rags plus a Bill Wirges Novelty. First off was Brier's "Clover Land," loaded with typically brilliant Brierisms. Next was the melancholy, expressive "Breadline Blues," written for Eric Marchese after he had lost his job, in 2001, on a daily newspaper's copy desk. Wirges' "Igloo Stomp" is a fun and highly entertaining Novelty that's rarely performed. Max closed his set with "Elbow Grease," one of Brier's great Novelties. Max's selections for the day showed his commitment to the music of Tom Brier. His ability to master the wide range of performing styles and the varying moods of Brier's compositions is impressive.
Andrew encored with Ron Ross's gentle "Rose Leaf Combination Tango." Pedro took the stage and prefaced his encores with an explanation of his tendency to feature Joplin's works, then gave us "Elite Syncopations" and "The Sycamore."
Vincent offered Nacio Herb Brown's "The Wedding of the Painted Doll," one of several "doll" follow-ups to the composer's famed "Doll Dance" (this one from 1929). He followed with Eubie's signature rag "The Baltimore Todalo," the first (and only) piece of the afternoon by the world-class composer born February 7, 1883, in Baltimore.
Max encored with Brier's "Urbana" and "One for Brun," Ed Maraga's homage to Brun Campbell.
Bob took us home with Jordan's "Morocco Blues," originally titled "Tampico," and closed his set with James P. Johnson's "The Harlem Band," having arranged the piece from the band arrangement published in March of 1951. Both selections were yet two more examples of Bob's skill in giving exposure to ragtime pieces heard rarely (if ever) in live performance. Everyone connected with OCRS is lucky to have him.
We heard a total of 36 selections, nearly one-third (11) of which were by composers born in February (Scott, Jordan, Johnson and Blake). Another 11 were contemporary ragtime pieces (mostly by Ron Ross and Tom Brier) and 14 were from the ragtime era (10 of which were either entirely or partly by Joplin). The day brought a well-balanced program in terms of selections, but more importantly, it showcased the individual strengths of each of the performers in terms of technique, expression, dynamics, stage presence and more. All of those elements made for a satisfying afternoon of wonderful music by some of the best performers of ragtime (and ragtime-related) music in Southern California.
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