"The Mississippi Rag"

March, 1998 edition


"Syncopated Odyssey: From Joplin to Bolcom and Beyond"
(John Roache, Piano - Performances realized from edited MIDI sequences).(JRCD101) 65.24 min.
Reviewed by Bill Mitchell

John Roache, a native Southern Californian, has been playing the acoustic piano for five decades. Although he is a pharmacist by profession, music and electronics are his hobbies. Long interested in ragtime, he has often felt frustrated when his limited technique prevented him from playing the music as he heard it in his inner ear. Years ago, however, he began to experiment with electronic music, and in 1985 he published a collection of computer ragtime. Out of his research has emerged something called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) sequences, in which a performer, using a keyboard with editing software can sculpt a performance to a superhuman degree of perfection, adding extra notes, removing clinkers, shaping the dynamics, and so on. (The liner notes describe this in technical detail that is far beyond my grasp.) Roache is said to spend as long as three months tinkering with one composition, getting it whipped into a shape that meets his high standards.

The program covers a century of ragtime, from the turn of the 20th century, beginning with Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) and concluding with George McClellan's "Exhilaration Rag" (1997). Roache incorporates some of the little tricks and flourishes of his favorite pianists into "Maple Leaf", and the result is quite satisfying. For "The Chrysanthemum" he has used Jim Turner's arrangement, which gives the tune more swing that a literal reading of the score would. "Back to Life" is an oddly constructed folk rag by Charles Hunter, ironically published just before the composer's untimely death. Jean Schwartz's "The White Wash Man" gets special treatment: faux banjo and tuba accompaniment which Roache added as special effects at the synthesizer keyboard. For James P. Johnson's "Eccentricity Waltz" Roache borrowed a few ideas from Australian pianist John Gill's interpretation. "Sleepy Piano" is a novelty piece from the Twenties by Billy Mayerl, the British counterpart to Zez Confrey.

Jumping ahead about 40 years, we come to the William Bolcom era. His "Graceful Ghost" is, to borrow Keats' words, "...a thing of beauty and a joy forever." Roache gives it a respectful and carefully crafted literal reading. The other Bolcom numbers are lighter and more playful. If you can sit through "The Poltergeist" without chuckling, I'll miss my guess.

George McClellan, who won an honorable mention at Sedalia last June, went home to complete a new rag last summer. The well-titled "Exhilaration Rag" is given a four-handed, razzle-dazzle piano roll treatment by Roache.

Hal Isbitz's compositions are often of the "terra verde" school, but "Palmetto Rag" is more in the classic ragtime tradition of Joplin, Scott, and Lamb. This is the first recording of "Palmetto", written in 1987.

Syncopated Odyssey concludes with six numbers by Robin Frost, a fellow with a predilection for whimsical titles. Like Bolcom, Frost often peppers his rags with humorous devices. His pieces are redolent of 1920's novelty piano, with some jazzy touches. They are not often performed for the simple reason that they are too difficult for most pianists.

The Roland RD-500 digital stage piano which Roache used to "realize" these well chosen pieces has an agreeable, almost acoustical sound, and the pianistics have been carefully crafted with suitable dynamics to give the illusion of live performances. Syncopated Oddysey is truely a remarkable achievement, both technologically and musically. No serious ragtime collector should miss it.

Available by mail order from John Roache Music, P.O. Box 28, Torrance, CA 90507-0028. Price $16 postpaid. CA tax $1.32.

"The Mississippi Rag"
published monthly by The Mississippi Rag Inc.
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Leslie Johnson, Editor/Publisher
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