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ROCKY MOUNTAIN RAGTIME FESTIVAL REVIEW 2003
By Fred Hoeptner
The eleventh annual edition of the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival opened July 17 amid a record-breaking heat wave in the Colorado Front Range. The view of Boulder Creek flowing under the public library provided a refreshing ambiance as a group of early arrivals gathered among local senior citizens in the auditorium for a free two-hour afternoon concert arranged by long-time volunteer Ann Westerberg. Performances included Ann playing “XL Rag” and “Texas Fox Trot,” and Frank French and violinist Sophie Rivard duetting on “St. Louis Tickle,” replete with double stops on the violin, and on French’s masterful “Centennial Cakewalk,” reminiscent of William Christopher O’Hare’s compositions from the 1890s.
The Board of Directors chaired by Jack Rummel had obtained funding assistance from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District of Denver and the Sutherland Family Foundation, and musical director Scott Kirby had accomplished his usual thorough job of selecting performers and organizing the program. Even so, Kirby expressed regret at being able to pay the performers only about half of their deserved compensation. The primary venue was again the comfortable air-conditioned and acoustically superb Unity Church in Boulder with after-hours activities and Sunday brunch at the Boulder Outlook Hotel (formerly the Ramada Inn), now under local ownership and newly refurbished. While the emphasis at the concerts remained on ragtime, this most eclectic of the festivals digressed as usual into other syncopated musical genres.
Festival events included the three evening concerts on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in the sanctuary, a series of specialty concerts during the day Friday and Saturday also in the sanctuary, three symposium sessions in a downstairs conference room, a Saturday evening cabaret at the hotel, a Sunday morning brunch followed by open piano, and the Monday night concert in the Chris Finger Piano Co. showroom.
The festival regulars, pianists Frank French, Brian Keenan, Scott Kirby, David Thomas Roberts, and Jack Rummel, were joined this year by Carl “Sonny” Leland, master of blues, barrelhouse, and boogie, originally from the U.K. but now living in Southern California; Tom McDermott, erstwhile ragtimer, jazz and rock critic, specialist in Creole music, and piano soloist whose stylistic inclinations often defy classification, from New Orleans; and Luis Simas, performer of choros mostly of his own composition from his native Brazil, now living in New York City. Violinist Sophie Rivard from Montreal, who had become an audience favorite last year and seemingly has the knack of enhancing anyone’s performance with minimal rehearsal, was invited back. The peerless five-piece Mont Alto Ragtime and Tango Orchestra performed leader and pianist Rodney Sauer’s precision arrangements evoking a ragtime era ambiance. New this year was an assemblage of ragtime string musicians who (except for Pash and Ault) had never before played together formally: Dennis Pash, from the Kansas City area and leader of the former Etcetera String Band, mandolin banjo; Bob Ault, from Blackwater MO, appearing in his formal period dress, also of the Etcetera band, five-string banjo and harp guitar (a cumbersome, difficult 18-stringed instrument); Craig Ventresco, of the former Bo Grumpus trio from San Francisco, guitar; and Tom Marion from Southern California, guitar, mandolin, and mando-cello. The festival deserves commendation for resurrecting string band ragtime, which had largely languished since the demise of the lamented Etcetera String Band some years ago. The combination generally worked except for a few rocky moments of uncertainty as to who would play the next solo and some tempo difficulties doubtless attributable to the extemporaneous nature of the performances.
The first half of Thursday night’s opening concert presented a sample of what would follow. Roberts opened with “Toulouse Street” from his “New Orleans Streets” suite, which he described as driven by blues and rock-and-roll. Keenan and Rivard performed Joe Lamb’s eccentric “Old Home Rag.” French and Rivard, Kirby, and Simas in separate performances introduced the audience to the choro, a lightly syncopated Brazilian popular music that developed contemporaneously with ragtime and is harmonized much like American dance music of the teens and twenties. Then Leyland took the stage and expressed his pleasure that ragtime devotees were accepting boogie and barrelhouse among their favored styles of early American music. He proceeded to set the venue afire with his “Memories of Albert Ammons” and his arrangement of Meade Lux Lewis’s “Honky-Tonk Train Blues.” The Mont Alto Orchestra finished the concert with seven varied selections. Leader Rodney Sauer announced that he had attempted to use Scott Joplin’s orchestration of James Scott’s “Frog Legs Rag” from publisher John Stark’s “Red Back Book,” but found that it sounded “awful,” the clarinet part being high and shrill. So he rearranged the Scott rag himself, using the key of “A”, and the result was a sparkling performance. Continuing his policy to orchestrate a different contemporary rag annually, this year he chose Hal Isbitz’s “Chandelier Rag,” an enchanting performance.
On Friday morning the specialty concert sessions began with “Levee Revels” featuring the string musicians and including the subject tune played by Bob Ault on banjo accompanied by Frank French on piano. Following were “James Scott’s Ragtime” featuring French, Kirby, Keenan, and Rivard; a blues and boogie session with Kirby, Leyland, and McDermott; “Brun Campbell Express” featuring five Campbell compositions, described as “ragtime in the rough,” performed by Keenan, Ault, and Rummel; and “The Art of the Choro” featuring Keenan, McDermott, Kirby, Rivard, French, and Simas. Simas explained that the word “choro,” meaning “cry,” derived from the melancholy feel of the music. Out on the fringe were McDermott’s choros #1 and 2 and his version of “Swipesy Cakewalk” played as a choro. Kirby, French, and Rivard delightfully performed two choros by Nazareth, including “Odeon,” and two other French arrangements. Next came a spellbinding performance by David Thomas Roberts of his entire monumental “New Orleans Streets” suite, for the first time in ten years, to a standing ovation. A series of fifteen relatively short musical vignettes in eclectic styles covering a spectrum of blues, rhythm and blues, Latin, and ragtime, the suite musically depicts the city where he lived and worked for many years and laments its decay.
The Friday night concert began with a tribute to composer Joe Lamb. Highlights included Keenan and Rivard duetting on Lamb’s eccentric “Old Home Rag,” with a fine arrangement featuring violin pizzicato, and Ault playing Lamb’s seldom heard “Greased Lightning” on piano. A Brazilian segment featured two duets by French and Rivard, one of which he had composed especially for her featuring double stops on the violin. Simas performed three pieces in duet with Rivard. McDermott, with clarinetist friend Dexter Payne, performed two of his own choro compositions and soloed on a third, “Lost Rio, ” his lament for the demolished architecture of the city, a highly chromatic and somewhat dissonant piece that nevertheless appealed to me. The string musicians then took over for a set of four rags by Tom Turpin. “Buffalo Rag” featured Ault and Ventresco, banjo and guitar; “Harlem Rag,” Ault, Ventresco, Pash and French, five-string banjo, guitar, mandolin-banjo and piano; “Bowery Buck” and “St. Louis Rag,” the same group minus French. The concert closed with six barrelhouse blues and boogie pieces by Leyland topped by “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” to enthusiastic applause.
The Saturday specialty concerts began with “Frank French’s Ragtime,” a set of seven French compositions played by French, Kirby, Rivard, and Keenan in various combinations. His “Centennial Cakewalk” arrangement with violin pizzicato and “Intermezzo”, a stately, melodious rag played by Kirby and Rivard, were standouts in my opinion. The “New Ragtime” segment featured six contemporary ragtime compositions. Keenan performed “The Neverfading Love,” a melodic rag by Oleg Mezjuev, web master of the Swedish Ragtime Home Page, which deserves greater exposure. Rummel performed his folkish “Dry Creek Days” which he had written for submittal to a cancelled composition contest. Kirby and Rivard performed Kirby’s “Ravenna,” an entrancing piece but probably outside the scope of ragtime. A string band session followed with Ault remarking that they were emulating the scene in a typical parlor of 100 years ago, no radio or television. The seven tunes played included “Peaceful Henry,” “The Smiler,” and “Rag Pickings,” the last with Ault soloing on the five-string banjo per a Fred Van Eps arrangement. The “Rebel Yell” session included Simas’ extended and elaborate “Tico Tico” medley, in my opinion akin to modern jazz, Roberts playing his version of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold, Heart,” and Roberts and Kirby duetting on Roberts’ composition “Kreole,” named after the town where he was raised.
Unlike last year’s dearth of ragtime at the Saturday night feature concert, this year the program was more balanced. The first half opened with a tribute to Scott Joplin: Kirby and Rivard duetting on “Heliotrope Bouquet “ and “Paragon Rag” and Keenan performing “Magnetic Rag.” Next, a coterie of Latin percussionists recruited from the ranks of the other performers accompanied French in the world premier of his tuneful tango “Carnavalesca.” Roberts debuted an entrancing commissioned piece just finished that he described as a “ragtime piece with a terra verde trio,” “The Diamonds.” A segment titled “Louisianthology” followed featuring French with Gottschalk’s “Bamboula”, Leyland with his driving minor “Witch’s Kitchen, Roberts with his throbbing, somber “Toulouse Street,” and McDermott with “The Big Man,” a habanera that he had composed to suggest his impression of Roberts. The second half was devoted to music of the “All-Star String Band,” the group of string musicians gathered by the festival noted previously. They performed twelve selections using various combinations of instruments ranging from cakewalks (“Impecunious Davis,” “Coon Band Contest”) to a set of meringue dances from Haiti to George M. Cohan (“Popularity”) to classic ragtime (“Great Scott,” “Temptation Rag,” “Frog Legs”). Scott Kirby and Frank French on piano joined the string group for the concert finale, Turpin’s “St. Louis Rag.”
Of the three symposia, I attended only McDermott’s session, which mostly concerned his recent CD “All the Keys and Then Some” featuring synthesizer and piano. He explained that he loves traditional music, but that he wanted to put a new spin on it, to do something new with it, and that he had, sometimes by discounting the concept of key. The other two symposia presenters were Roberts discussing his “New Orleans Streets” suite and Simas discussing his choros.
The illusion of immersion in music makes the Monday night piano concert in the showroom of the Chris Finger Piano Company in nearby Niwot the favorite of many festival goers. Kirby and French led with “Belle of Louisville” and a Nazareth tango “Slipping and Sliding.” Kirby and Roberts followed with Jelly Roll Morton’s tango “Mama Nita” and Roberts soloed on his own “Broad Avenue” tango from “New Orleans Streets.” Rummel demonstrated the 1902 “Carbarlick Acid” by Wiley as a straight cakewalk, and then as a rag, followed by his own musical portrait of the “West Texas Fiddler.” Leyland played the pop tune “One Sweet Letter From You” in medium boogie tempo, followed by Big Maceo Merriwether’s “Chicago Breakdown.” The ambiance suddenly hushed as Keenan performed a waltz “Angel’s Blessing” that he had written for his friend Joani Holmes’ father and his wife. Kirby joined him for a duet on “Swipesy Cakewalk.” McDermott followed with a lullaby written for a relative’s daughter. The entire cast joined on multiple pianos to end the first half with Tony Jackson’s rather frenzied bawdyhouse composition “The Naked Dance.” Keenan opened the second half with his favorite folk rag, the Trebor Tichenor composition “It’s a Long Way Back Home.” Roberts performed Kirby’s “Charbonneau,” with interesting raindrop effects in the upper register, followed by a duet with McDermott on “New Orleans Joys.” McDermott, French, Keenan, Kirby, and Leyland in various combinations performed five Latin tinged and blues tunes including two McDermott originals and French’s “Womba-Bomba,” topped by a rapid-fire boogie duet by Leyland and Kirby. The entire cast joined in the stirring festival finale, “Maple Leaf Rag.” Following the concert Chris Finger Pianos hosted a reception with food and refreshments in the pavilion adjoining the showroom, the perfect conclusion to an exciting festival.
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