I once read a review of Richard Adams' fantasy classic "Watership Down" that went on for pages about what an ingenious plot and fascinating characters the novel has. Then, in the last line of the article, the reviewer drops the bombshell: "Oh by the way, did I mention it's about rabbits?" I am sorely tempted to use the same approach in reviewing John Roache's new CD, "Syncopated Odyssey: From Joplin to Bolcom and Beyond".
If I did, I would tell you that this is over 65 minutes of the finest, most rollicking ragtime that I've ever heard on CD. I'd tell you it's a wonderfully eclectic mix, ranging from classic rags like Joplin's "Maple Leaf" and "Chrysanthemum", to lesser-known period rags like the 1908 "Whitewash Man", through gems of the ragtime revival like Bolcom's "Tabby Cat Walk" and Isbitz's "Palmetto Rag", to the final set of six compositions by Robin Frost that are nothing less than a ragtime revelation. I'd tell you that the tunes are enhanced by arrangements and a performance technique that absolutely sparkle with intelligence and skill. Then, in the final line of my review, I'd drop the bombshell: Oh by the way, did I mention it's MIDI files?
This bit of news is inevitably met with ambivalence. When I played the CD for my mom, she declared it some of the finest piano playing she had ever heard. When I told her it wasn't a "real" piano, but was computer MIDI files instead, she looked disappointed and said "I wish you hadn't told me." But the point is, if I hadn't told her, she'd never have known. Nor would most listeners. Then what's the point, you may ask. Why doesn't John Roache just play a piano? Because, as the liner notes put it, "Sequencing allows John to do what only a piano roll could do; that is, create arrangements that would otherwise be humanly impossible to play. But, unlike piano rolls, MIDI sequences have the capability to reproduce all of the dynamics, character and nuances of a live performance."
Don't believe it? Then check out the first track of the CD. It's not just Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag", but it's "Maple Leaf Rag" the way Jelly Roll Morton might have performed it, with bits of Wally Rose and Ralph Sutton thrown in. Or take the CD's second track, Joplin's "Chrysanthemum" from 1904. Here, John gives it a stride-piano treatment, with a strong Latin flavor in the fourth strain. I submit to you that such nuances of performance cannot be attained by mechanically transposing notes from sheet music into a computer program. No, the arrangement of MIDI sequences is a true art form, with a single composition sometimes taking several months to craft. And John Roache is quite probably the peerless master of this medium.
But enough techno-babble, let's get to the music. That's why we're here. After the two Joplin numbers that open the CD come four more period rags. The first is Charles Hunter's catchy "Back to Life" from 1905. This is followed by Jean Schwartz's 1908 rag, "Whitewash Man", the only track on the CD where the piano is joined by other "instruments", in this case a banjo and tuba. James P. Johnson's "Eccentricity Waltz" from 1925 comes next, testing the limits of credulity for anyone who stops to consider that this is not a live piano performance. "Sleepy Piano" written in 1926 by British prodigy Billy Mayerl rounds off this set, with a much more melodic number than one might expect from this composer of "novelty piano".
The next set consists of four modern rags written by William Bolcom between 1967 and 1971. Everyone knows "Graceful Ghost" of course, but I must confess that Roache's treatment "swings" a bit too much for my taste. Then again, perhaps I've just been too conditioned by John Arpin's more languorous recording of it. "Incineratorag" stretches the form of ragtime with its odd harmonics but is still catchy and enjoyable. Another of Bolcom's "ghost rags", "The Poltergeist", follows, and leaves me wondering if Bolcom was as much a student of parapsychology as of music, for this is clearly what such a mischievous and destructive entity would sound like. Finally, there is the playful "Tabby Cat Walk", which lopes along with the same ambling gait as my own domestic feline.
From 1997, George McClellan's perfectly-named "Exhilaration Rag" is a giddy delight, and has left me hungry for more of his compositions. John's arrangement of this piece is a triumph, done in a four-hand piano-roll style. I challenge anyone to listen to this and not get a big, silly grin plastered across his face. From a decade earlier comes Hal Isbitz's "Palmetto Rag", in its debut recording here. For those who chiefly know Isbitz as a composer of "terra verde", the elegant beauty of this classic, almost Lamb-style rag will come as a pleasant surprise.
Demonstrating that he is a true pro, John Roache saves the best for last: a set of six incredibly beautiful and ebullient contemporary rags by Robin Frost. Now, I've heard the occasional Frost composition (usually "Space Shuffle") played at ragtime festivals and was never much impressed. I now know why. They are technically so challenging that even some of our best performers stumble through them. I once heard the same thing said of Scott Joplin's music when it was still new. In fact, some historians credit the player piano for popularizing Joplin by allowing more people to hear his music as it should be heard. It is my firm hope that MIDI files will perform the same service for Robin Frost's intricate music.
As you listen to "Three Sheets In The Ocean, One Foot In The Sunset, And You", "Rolling Avocado", "Occident Express", "Space Shuffle", "Windmill Rag", and "Eccentric Formalism Rag", you will realize that Frost's compositions are on the cutting edge of contemporary ragtime, with stride and novelty elements seamlessly blended in. And just because it's progressive, don't get the idea it would be of interest only to musicologists. Nope, this music is, above all else, FUN, and of interest to anyone who likes toe-tapping, blood-pumping, remarkably inventive ragtime.
All in all, this is one of the finest ragtime CDs I have ever encountered. If you avoid getting it because it is "computer music", you are doing yourself a grave disservice. If it bothers you that much, tear up the liner notes before you read them and forget you saw this review. Just put John Roache on your stereo, settle into your listening chair, and prepare to be delighted.