Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Left Hand Zig-Zags

American Beauty: A Ragtime Boquet
Gary Smart, piano
Albany Records, TROY 1029


Gary Smart is the Yessin Professor of Music at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, a broadly-trained musician, a versatile composer and an improviser across a stylistic range from American jazz to classical music to world music. This Albany Records release features Smart playing a number of his own piano rags interspersed with works by the classic ragtime composers of a century ago.

I've always been a wee bit frustrated at the selection of piano ragtime available in the CD era. The wonderful Dick Hyman released an authoritative full set of Scott Joplin's piano works three decades ago on a 5-LP set on RCA (I believe), but so far only a single disc of "favorites" from that effort has made its way to CD. Most every other recording I've come across since either has amateur playing or a disappointing instrument or recording, or the artist insists to some degree on treating Joplin's score as a rough template, a kind of jazz fake book for how the artists thinks the piece ought to sound. I suppose this is not nonsensical, given Joplin's position as one of the bedrocks of jazz, a genre which has a fundamental element of improvisation. Maybe my classical music background has tainted me--people don't "interpret" Chopin in this way--but I just prefer to hear what Joplin wrote rather than what each pianist has to say about what Joplin wrote.

I have no such reservations about this CD. Dr. Smart devotes about half the recording to classic rag composers--Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Scott, Robert Hampton and Clarence Woods--and the other half to his own compositions. He does the genre great justice, demonstrating a deep sympathy and understanding. Tempi are ambling (everybody seems to want to play rags too fast, and it's a delight to hear someone slow down and find the groove), the rubato restrained, and the performances get us right inside the pieces, in the process capturing (and revisiting) a rich moment in history.

Having said that, most of Smart's own works here sound right out of that classic rag period of a hundred-plus years ago. His Two Flowers Rag takes us right back to the turn of the last century (reminding me of the soundtrack for one of my favorite movies, Robert Altman's Gosford Park) and the Peanut Butter and Laramie Rags are quite traditional. By way of contrast, his Harlequin Rag offers a more modern variation on the theme, departing from the template a bit in both structure and tonality. And the delightfully jaunty Bell Rag also sounds smartly updated (sorry).

The classic works on the album make lovely additions to one's music library. James Scott and Joseph Lamb sit with Joplin at the top of the ragtime family tree, and it takes a devotee to realize these composers' works are not from Joplin's pen. Scott's Grace and Beauty especially sounds absolutely like a Joplin rag (and is in any event a delightful composition). And we get two Joplin rags, including my single favorite of the genre, Solace: a Mexican serenade.

The piano chosen for the recording sounds a touch tired, though not to the recording's detriment. The record is not particularly sharp, but clean enough to make out detail.


shrimplate said...

Joplin himself said that rags shouldn't be played fast. Solace is my favorite, too. I've always thought of rags as character-pieces, not blueprints for improvisation. One more thing I have to read up on, I guess.

Was this recorded in the old Troy Savings Bank Music Hall? It's considered to be the most-acoustically appealing venue in the country, and Dorian records used to record there almost exclusively. I've heard a variety of concerts there, from orchestras to folkies, and it sounds better than anything.

wunelle said...

So interesting that you should mention the Troy Savings Bank. I have a recording or two (Dorians, as you say) from that venue. The one I remember specifically (I'm not at home) is the piano and organ sonatas of Julius Ruebke by the brilliant French organist Jean Guillou. I think my couple volumes of Reger works for solo violin with Ulrike-Animé Mathé might also have been recorded there.

As for this recording, the iTunes download (I'm getting so lazy in my old age) does not have any booklet with it, so I am unsure.