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Three great ragtime pianists shine

at Nixon Library March 10 concert

The Nixon Presidential Museum and Library hosted an OCRS concert for the second time this year, delivering a socko concert featuring three of OCRS's best pianists: Bob Pinsker, Andrew Barrett and Michael Flores.

Joining Michael for his sets was his dad, Dave, on bass, adding an extra dimension to the expected sound of ragtime piano. The duo launched the day with a memorable rendition of "Temptation Rag," Henry Lodge's most popular and arguably his greatest rag. In doing so, they put the spotlight on one of the composers featured at February's OCRS (Lodge having been born in February). Next up was the Marshall-Joplin perennial "Swipesy," with extensive jazzy improvisations for each repeat and with some fine solo interludes by Dave on bass.

Bob rolled out two selections that might not have seen the light of day had enterprising researchers like himself not plucked them from obscurity. First was Joplin's "Silver Swan Rag," which was cut on piano rolls by at least two different companies circa 1913-1914 but which was otherwise unknown until 1970, during the earliest days of the Maple Leaf Club in Los Angeles.

"Piano Roll Albert" Grimaldi discovered a roll in his collection in his garage, then brought it to the attention of MLC members, who upon hearing it, attributed it to Joplin based on considerable stylistic evidence. Soon listings for the roll were found in QRS catalogs from 1914 to further cement the composition's provenance. MLC's Dick Zimmerman and Donna McCluer transcribed the roll and the club published the piece in 1971, allowing ragtimers everywhere to enjoy and appreciate this late Joplin masterpiece. Bob's performance of it is indeed authentic to both roll and score.

Along similar lines in terms of its lineage is what Bob has referred to as "Untitled Foxtrot," a piece he found, slightly incomplete, in manuscript form in the Eubie Blake archives in Baltimore. Bob completed the piece and brought it to light at OCRS and elsewhere in the early 2000s (see the OCRS writeup from February 2002), recorded it in 2005, and it's a phenomenal, delightful creation by Eubie, the second of the afternoon's February-born composers. Bob's masterful performance reveals that the piece is vintage Eubie from the very first bar. The entire piece has the singular "sound" of all of Eubie's works, with a standout trio that's one of the composer's best themes.

Andrew delivered the third consecutive piece of the day not readily accessible via a published score. Although the great St. Louis ragtime Charley Thompson composed a handful of wonderful rags, "The Lily Rag" is the only one to have been typeset and issued to the public during the composer's lifetime (via Stark's Syndicate Music Co.). Thompson's wonderful "Delmar Rag" is among those whose performances by the composer himself were recorded (on four separate occasions). Noting that the piece was never published or issued on piano roll, and giving us extensive background, Andrew delivered a first-rate rendering based on a transcription of one of Thompson's recordings. The cheerful A section has the distinctive sound of St,. Louis ragtimers like Tom Turpin and Joe Jordan, and both Thompson and Jordan credit their contemporary, St. Louis pianist Conroy Casey, with the theme's primary ideas (used by Jordan for the A theme of "J.J.J. Rag" from 1905). Theme B has a descending treble figure (measures 1-4 and 9-12) also characteristic of early St. Louis ragtime. The trio's ascending figures are carved out in the minor tonality along the lines of classical piano, and the piece closes with a memorable coda.

Andrew announced his second selection as "from another part of Missouri": the great "Blue Goose Rag" by the prolific composer Charles L. Johnson. In fact, Johnson felt compelled to use his "Raymond Birch" pseudonym so as to avoid the appearance that he was the sole composer of the many rags he issued as publisher, though this one was issued by Forster in Chicago. The 1916 piece's second subject uses a boogie-style walking bass, and the left hand part of the trio, unsyncopated in the score, is equally unusual and innovative. Andrew neatly embellishes this memorable section each time around and has crafted a pleasing coda to close this fine rag.

Michael and Dave Flores opened their second set with an up-tempo rendering of the Hayden-Joplin perennial "Sunflower Slow Drag," and again, Dave's creative work on the bass proved an ear- and crowd-pleasing complement to the sound of ragtime piano. The duo then delivered a melodically raggy interpretation of the hit '20s song "Tea for Two," lending flowing improvisatory passages to the chorus before shifting into a new key for the grand finale.

Bob gave us "Baltimore Todolo," one of his signature numbers and his (and the afternoon's) second great piece by Eubie Blake. Eubie composed it around 1910, according to his own account, while not notating it until he was well into his 70s (in 1962), and the piece was published in 1975, when the ragtime revival of the 1970s had already surpassed explosive proportions. Like the piece Bob unearthed and played earlier in the day, "Todolo" is a Blake masterpiece showcasing some of the composer's most distinctive contributions to the genre. Bob then switched to another widely heralded Harlem Stride composer, Willie "The Lion" Smith, bringing us yet another piece he (Bob) discovered and brought to light. As Bob relates, "Spanish Rag" was copyrighted by the composer with the deposition of a lead sheet (melody only, no chords) at the copyright office in 1925 but the piece was neither recorded nor published. Bob identified his version of the piece as a "conjectural reconstruction," which he added was "quite a mouthful to say!" Given entertaining and memorable panache by Bob, the great rag-tango is a clear descendant of Jess Pickett's [or was it "Jack the Bear" (John Wilson)?] vaunted "The Dream," a late 19th-century piano work whose influence made its way down through the decades an into the ragtime era and echos of which can be heard in a handful of known pieces.

Andrew closed his final set with a selection deliberately "not ragtime": "Queen of Roses," a lovely, classical-style waltz by the great lady ragtime composer Charlotte Blake. Andrew's sensitive interpretation reveals a facet of ragtime-era piano music not often heard in contemporary performance, and Andrew made a point to note that his performance of the selection was dedicated to the late, great ragtimer Stephen Kent Goodman and also to the Maple Leaf Club. Andrew wrapped up his set and the day with "Feinryt Rag" (pronounced "fine right"). The pianist-composer's latest original, the piece was announced as Andrew's own attempt at crafting "an old-fashioned style" piano rag. Each of the opening themes shift between major and minor tonalities, with unusual bass patterns in the opening theme and a second subject that acts as a standard "answer" to the ideas delivered in theme A. The subdued trio provides a wonderful contrast to the rag's first half, and bridge leads into a more forceful treatment of section C to close a fine new rag that taps 21st-century harmonies and uses them in the service of vintage piano ragtime.

All four of the afternoon's performers -- Bob, Andrew and the Flores family -- created a wide-ranging concert spanning more than 120 years of ragtime history while putting the genre's musical diversity on full display and giving the sizable audience more to look forward to at upcoming OCRS performances in Fullerton and Yorba Linda.

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