COMPACT DISC REVIEW
By Jack Rummel
The New Ragtime Music of Vincent Matthew Johnson
Max Keenlyside, piano
Rivermont Records BSW-2241
Storybook Rag / Too Much Cheesecake / That Bagel Rag / Blue-Berry Pancakes / The Mother Lode Rag / Elysian Park Rag / Curly & Fro Rag / Puppy Love / Red Envelope Rag / Mission Street Rag / Milk and Honey / Tiffany Lamp Rag / Betty Crocker’s Cakewalk / Night-time in Nigeria / Balzac Street Rag / Elder Street Rag / Oatmeal Rag No. 1 / Lovebirds Rag / Cedarhawke Rag.
Of the dozen or so pianists in the up-and-coming ragtime generation who are succeeding as performers (dubbed the “Young Turks” by one noted ragtime promoter), most have at least dabbled in composition as well. Some have taken it seriously, but none have done so more prolifically than Vincent Matthew Johnson. Starting with novelty piano solos, he has since focused on ragtime itself with sprinklings of novelty tricks woven in.
Esteemed by his fellow “Turks,” a few have combined their efforts to ensure that some of Johnson’s works got released on CD and this disc is the result. Produced by Bryan Wright and performed by Max Keenlyside with liner notes by William McNally, this trio of his peers have digitally enshrined 19 of Johnson’s best rags for us to enjoy.
The opener, Storybook Rag, is warm and friendly in the classic vein, while Too Much Cheesecake is up-tempo and playful (ending with a bit of indigestion) and That Bagel Rag, along with Milk and Honey, successfully explore the Jewish klezmer sound. The influence of Joseph Lamb can be heard in Elysian Park Rag and Tiffany Lamp Rag; the impact of W.C. O’Hare is felt in Night-time in Nigeria and the ghost of Scott Joplin is evident in Elder Street Rag. None of these would be termed derivative, however, as originality dominates them all. The Mother Lode Rag and Oatmeal Rag No. 1 are unabashed “good-time” romps, Curly and Fro opens with a cascade of really “curly” notes, and Red Envelope Rag, inspired by a Chinese festival, features the clever use of fourths. Cedarhawke Rag, a sprightly novelty piano piece, is a perfect closer. All 19 pieces are successful, but this dozen, I felt, rose to the top.
As is to be expected from Rivermont, the sound is intimate and the dynamics are well captured. Wright’s attention to layout and artistic detail resulted in a very attractive package, and McNally’s scholarly analysis of each piece enhances the listener’s appreciation of the performances. But it is Max Keenlyside, in top form here, whose ability to capture the essences of Vincent Matthew Johnson’s unique compositions makes this CD truly a winner. If you are curious as to what the younger ragtime generation is doing, then this recording belongs in your library.
Available for $20 postpaid from Vincent Matthew Johnson, P.O. Box 7863, Alhambra, CA 91802-7863 or PayPal via <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Copies ordered directly through him receive a complimentary score to one of the rags from the album if a title is specified when the order is placed. A folio of the rags is also available through him for $35 postage paid (or $50 for both the CD and Folio together).