Abbreviated May 2023 performance puts the spotlight on composers with May birthdates
The May OCRS at Spice Social brought an unexpected surprise when pianists and spectators learned that the venue had a late afternoon/early evening event scheduled, requiring us to clear the stage by 3:30 pm.
Despite the curveball, the seven performers – six pianists and one bass player – rose to the occasion, delivering 17 selections and entertaining patrons with multiple sub-genres of ragtime.
Not only that, but the music of composers with May birthdates was showcased, giving fans a chance to hear pieces by Fats Waller, Billy Mayerl, Harry Austin Tierney, May Aufderheide and Irving Berlin – five top composers with styles encompassing Stride, Novelty and popular ragtime.
The icing on the cake at this abbreviated session: Several originals, some rarities, and ragtime renditions of pop songs from later eras – all that in under 90 minutes.
Vincent Johnson gave us a splendid start with his outstanding performance by a May-born composer: "Marigold," Billy Mayerl's signature number. Mayerl was born on May 31, 1902, in London, England, and Vincent's beautiful, restrained and expressive playing style, heard frequently at OCRS gatherings, has made this notable composition one of his signature pieces to perform, going back to earliest appearances on the local ragtime scene.
MC Eric Marchese gave us Tierney's "Fleur de Lis," one of at least nine of the composer's rags published in 1911, noting that this is among Tierney's best pieces (defining it as "good to great") from that notably prolific year. Tierney was born in 1890 in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and his May 21 birthdate, Eric pointed out, was, coincidentally, the next day. (Eric also made note of "American Beauty Dance," another Tierney rag from 1911, yet not listed in "Rags and Ragtime," and promised to work it up for a future OCRS.)
Ron Ross served up two outstanding originals, both inspired by California-based ragtime events and organizations – first, "West Coast Rag," in honor of the annual West Coast Ragtime Festival, then "Orange County Rag," a tip of the hat to Orange County-based O.C.R.S. and RagFest. The latter is noteworthy for its use of tango rhythms and the minor tonality (both among Ron's favorite devices) as well as a trio that strongly echoes the works of Lamb.
Andrew Barrett kicked off his mini-set with an incredibly intricate arrangement of the outstanding 1909 Charles L. Johnson rag "Apple Jack." His enjoyment playing the piece is contagious, filling listeners with the joy so prevalent in Johnson's many rags. Andrew followed with a lovely piano arrangement of Walter Donaldson's 1926 song "What Can I Say, Dear, After I Say I'm Sorry," emphasizing this selection's slow, sweet verse and expressive chorus.
Eric followed suit with another piano arrangement of a song – and another May birthdate selection. "The International Rag" is a wonderful 1913 ragtime song by Irving Berlin, born May 11, 1888 in Tyumen, Russia.
Vincent returned to the stage with the afternoon's only piece by Thomas Waller, better known as Fats, whose May 21 birthdate (the next day) is shared by Tierney and May Aufderheide. Waller was born in New York City in 1904, and the rare, and rarely played, "Alligator Crawl" is a great, elegant number that's an ideal mix of Harlem Stride and more conventional pop music. Once again, the piece is a Vincent Johnson specialty, and one of his best numbers.
Vincent's second piece was another rarity, "Barber Pole Rag" by Charles L. Johnson, and he pointed out that the trio of this 1911 song strongly resembles the chorus of "You Are My Sunshine," which it predates by nearly 30 years. Vincent closed his set with a second Waller selection, "Clothes Line Ballet." The piece (circa 1927) is an intriguing mixture of jazz and pop music ideas in a ragtime format, and it's even more rarely heard than "Alligator Crawl."
Eric completed the troika of May 21st birthdates with a great yet underplayed rag by May Aufderheide – "Novelty Rag." May's final published piece was issued in 1911 (one of several of the afternoon's selections from that year) and, as Eric noted, it's among her best despite rarely being programmed by today's ragtimers.
Andrew wrapped up his playing for the day with two of the afternoon's best pieces. First, the pop song "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," written by Roy Turk (lyrics) and Fred E. Ahlert (music) and published in 1930. Andrew's outstanding arrangement yielded a lovely rendition of this pop standard.
Andrew's final piece was a real treat: A 2007 original, recently revised, of his "Black Bear Rag." Chock-full of originality, the piece is characterized by a lovely, broad flow of inventive ideas best expressed in the broad grandeur of the closing theme.
Ron dashed back up to the stage for a quick encore, his brief, fast-paced original "Tesla Song," whose enjoyably funny lyrics include the line "Plug me in, charge me up, I'm ready to go!"
Notified that playing time for the day was winding down, Barry Blakeley delivered a flawless, up-tempo performance of Joplin's masterful "Gladiolus Rag."
Michael Flores and his dad, Dave, also saw their playing time cut short, yet made the most of it, with jazz-tinged versions of the Hayden-Joplin standard "Swipesy" and the 1924 song "Tea for Two" (from the hit Broadway musical comedy "No, No, Nanette" by Irving Cesar, Otto Harbach and Vincent Youmans) with Michael's piano given extra oomph by Dave's flavorful playing on acoustic bass.
Dave noted that while "Tea for Two" originated in the '20s, it was reintroduced in the mid-'40s (circa 1944-'45) by Art Tatum, who made it popular – and whose version is the basis for this father-and-son's performance.
Ragtime fans should be aware of the fact that Barry Blakeley and Michael and David Flores are being showcased in OCRS's next concert at the Nixon Presidential Library (with Ryan Wishner rounding out the bill). That's right around the corner – Sunday, June 4, from 2 to 3 pm – so be sure to add that event to your calendar!
And on July 9, OCRS is hosting its fifth Nixon Library concert of the year, featuring two May OCRS performers: Vincent and Andrew.
These special events will give everyone a chance to hear quite a bit more music from all of these talented gents than they were afforded at our most recent open-piano musicale. See you at one or both of these, and at the next OCRS at Spice on Saturday, June 24 (starting at 2 pm).
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