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March '24: February, March and April composer birthdates, plus Women's Month, Passover and a bounty of originals and rarities

Talk about an embarrassment of riches -- the March OCRS at Half-Off Books kept the February composer birthdate train rolling with "Virtual February" while continuing to celebrate Black History Month. Atop that, we heard pieces by ragtimers born in March and April, selections written by women (to celebrate International Women's Month) and a generous quantity of contemporary rags, including one that celebrates Passover.

Six pianists offered a total of 37 selections. Nearly one-fourth of these were performed by Bob Pinsker, who not only carried the day, but who dedicated himself almost exclusively to unveiling pieces rarely (if ever) heard by contemporary audiences. These wonderful rarities offset the high percentage of more frequently heard Joplins (seven solo and three collaborative rags).

At the risk of repeating ourselves, we were treated (yet again) to a memorable afternoon of outstanding ragtime piano.

Barry Blakeley opted to start with a contemporary he's been working on for a while: Eric Marchese's "An Autumn Memory," delivering what the composer characterized as a beautiful handling of one of his earliest rags, written to reflect the beauty of seasonal foliage each fall in his native New England. Barry then delivered the singular, early Joplin masterpiece "The Easy Winners" in an enjoyable, up-tempo rendition he said is patterned after that of pianist Dick Wellstood.

Eric led off with the first of the day's many composer birthdate pieces -- this one by Scott Hayden (DOB March 31, 1882). "Something Doing" is one of Hayden's best. Joplin's lovely trio notwithstanding, it's the piece's socko, final ride-out strain that bestows greatness upon this early Classic rag. Eric then switched over to Joplin: one of his songs and, like the Hayden rag, from 1903. Eric prefaced his performance that he chose this lovely, sensitive piano lullaby because its lyricist, Chicago poet Louise Armstrong Bristol, is the only woman whose name appears on a piece co-written by Joplin -- a nod to International Women's Month.

Max Libertor gave us a wonderful set of contemporary rags, starting with Max Keenlyside's "One for James Scott," a rollicking rag from 2006 that's a fine addition to the classic rag repertory, especially with its mirroring of the kind of musical fireworks typically heard in Scott's works. "The Rye Patch" (1998) and "Olivewood Fox Trot" (2007) are Tom Brier masterpieces rarely if ever performed and heard.

(As a matter of fact, which pieces of Brier's staggering output don't rightfully deserve regard as masterpieces, and which [beyond just a handful] are worked up for performance? Precious few.)

Vincent Johnson launched his set with "Serenata," a great light Novelty from 1928 by Rube Bloom, chosen in part to celebrate the composer's April 24, 1902, birthdate. For his March birthdate selection, Vincent gave us "Heliotrope Bouquet." Co-composer Joplin, who rescued Louis Chauvin's lovely work from obscurity, is born in November, but this piece celebrates the March birth of Chauvin, whose prodigious musical talent had his peers regarding him as a phenom with no peer. Vincent's fantastic set closed with a nod to Passover in his strikingly memorable original "Milk and Honey," which expertly meshes the bitter with the sweet through affecting harmonies and inventive bass patterns.

Bob started off with "Whip'poor'will Dance," a Joe Jordan rarity from 1925 whose opening theme has a habanera bass that sets the tone for an extraordinary piece. Its second theme's use of the minor tonality generates intensity, while the extended trio section functions more like the instrumental interlude of a vocal piece -- a device typical of Jordan's compositional style.

Noting that Eubie Blake is "one of my favorites, and especially of the February guys," Bob delivered the set's second rarity: Eubie Blake's "Walkin' the Dog" from 1916, noting that the Shelton Brooks tune of the same name (and from the same year) attained far more popularity. Bob gave us an outstanding piano arrangement of " . . . Dog" (sans its Noble Sissle lyrics), which includes the interlude Bob has sketched to round out the manuscript score he found as a Library of Congress copyright deposition.

Bob closed his set with a second great work by Eubie: "Poor Jimmy Green," a now well-known Eubie rag found on the 1969 album "The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake." The Harlem Stride piece is quintessential Eubie, replete with a vicious-sounding minor key opening theme and a host of devices like the drop bass, walking bass and use of tango rhythms.

Pedro Bernardez opened his set with the Marshall-Joplin rag "Swipesy" and continued the classic rag thread with two early Joplins, both from 1902: "Elite Syncopations" and "A Breeze from Alabama." Pedro ramped down the normally allegro tempo of "Swipesy" to something pleasingly slower, creating a nice change of pace, provided wide-ranging dynamics for "Elite" that aren't in the score, and took "Breeze" at a slower, modest tempo, creating a bombastic finale for the final repeat of the main (B) section.

Barry gave us an encore set that showcased first Joplin, then Blake, with "Gladiolus Rag," then "Rhapsody in Ragtime." From 1975, "Rhapsody" is a welcome Blake addition to OCRS, a piece wholly indicative of the complexities of Eubie's late-in-life music. The remarkable second theme blends ragtime, pop and classical music, while the trio has echoes of "Rhapsody in Blue." Barry pulled the piece off with panache, complete with a stunning finale.

Eric unveiled the afternoon's second homage to Chauvin with "Babe, It's Too Long Off," a 1906 ragtime song that underscores Chauvin's feel for captivating melodies and striking (and singular) harmonies. Though Eric doesn't sing the piece, he explained that Elmer Bowman's lyrics ideally convey the comedic dilemma of the engaged singer's pleas to his betrothed sweetie to have their wedding ASAP, lest he keep losing track of the time. Eric then tipped his cap to International Women's Month with "Novelty Rag" -- not just the final published rag by May Aufderheide, perhaps the greatest lady ragtime composer of all, but among her best.

Max encored with an all-Brier set of "Balderdash Fox Trot." "Summer Echoes Waltzes" and "Elephant Tracks," wisely programming two barnburner rag as bookends for the set's more serene waltz. With its two-fisted opening theme, "Balderdash" is a wild ride capped by a trio that's one of Brier's greatest themes. From 2012, "Summer . . ." is a lovely ragtime waltz, while 2004's "Elephant Tracks" proved the set's second wild ride.

Vincent encored with the rarely heard "Sapho." The first of J. Russel Robinson's published rags, it's got a tangy trio followed by a great fourth section (D), then an even great finale (section E), all played by Vincent with verve and skill.

Arthur Schutt's "Ramblin' in Rhythm" is a terrific Novelty, one of Vincent's signature tunes. The same can be said for Vincent's strikingly original "Shih-Tzu Blues," which in the 20 years since we first heard it has developed quite a following.

Pedro improvised the song "Break in the Rain," complete with off-the-cuff vocals, before launching into the perennial "Maple Leaf Rag," then shifted to the more introspective feel of "Weeping Willow," which Joplin wrote just a handful of years after "Maple Leaf."

Bob gave us "Tampico" (renamed "Morocco Blues" when copyrighted), his second Joe Jordan selection of the day and, like "Whip'poor'will Dance," another Jordan rarity whose manuscript is dated 1923 for a piece copyrighted two years later.

"Truckin' on Down," from 1935, is one of the seemingly countless Eubie Blake numbers Bob has gifted to us and, as with many of them, a rarity. "Harlem's latest dance craze" carries lyrics by Arthur Porter, and Bob displayed an original sheet whose back cover has dance instructions. Not just a rare tune but a wonderful one, it echoes both earlier and later examples of Blake's output.

"Ain't We Got Love" is a typical '30s pop song (about love, of course) with lyrics by J. Milton Reddie and Cecil Mack with music by Eubie, from the 1937 musical "Swing It." Bob both played Blake's music and sang Reddie and Mack's lyrics, giving the chorus a second go-round with piano only and showing us Bob's talents as an arranger.

Bob said Eubie dredged up "Eubie's Boogie Rag" in the '40s when the public was crazy about boogie-woogie and says that at the time, Eubie noted that he and his peers were playing the style a full four decades earlier (and that it was considered "low"). He dusted the piece off and sold it to Shapiro-Bernstein -- but it was never published.

Max had a second encore set of "Bluin' the Black Keys" and "Peril in Pantomime," the former a great Arthur Schutt Novelty and the latter a Tom Brier barnburner from 2008.

Fittingly, Bob concluded the afternoon with two more fantastic Eubie Blake tunes. "Firefly" is culled from less than two pages of manuscript Bob relates is an untitled "sketch" in Eubie's handwriting and that he "obviously" intended that lyrics would be added to this gentle, lyrical, melodic piece. Indeed, J.M. Reddie did exactly that; the song was copyrighted as an unpublished work in 1936.

Bob closed his final set and the outstanding afternoon with "Charleston Rag," one of his signature performance pieces and perhaps Eubie's greatest solo piano rag.

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