Handful of Keys
Martin Spitznagel, piano
Rivermont Records BSW-2217
Handful of Keys / The Easy Winners / Mary Poppins Medley / The Chips Are Down / The Smoky Rose / Ticklish Tom – A Carolina Cakewalk / The Train Town Rag / Hobson Street Blues / Marty’s Blues / Legend of Zelda: Overworld Theme / The Newbie Eubie / Hot Cinders / Final Fantasy: Amblin’ with Chocobo / Incandescent Rag / The Entertainer (Blues) / Pork and Beans / Marigold / The Seagull Shuffle / Super Mario Brothers Medley / Amazing Grace / Tiger Rag (à la Art Tatum) / Maple Leaf Rag at 4AM.
Martin Spitznagel refers to this recording as “face-melting” ragtime, defined as exposure to an event of epic awesomeness. While making that claim may border on epic audacity, this CD does have an awful lot going for it. The recorded sound is excellent and the graphics are very good, too. His touch is completely under control; he can switch from loud and brash to feather-light in the time it takes to draw a breath. The extensive liner notes are personal and fun to read, and while they’re spiced with occasional name-dropping and horn-blowing, as Dizzy Dean once said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”
Every track is a winner but some deserve individual mention. Stride piano has re-interpreted many pop tunes, Broadway melodies and “longhair” classical themes, so why not Mary Poppins? It’s hard to imagine “Feed the Birds” taken in stride, but blended with “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” Spitznagel’s medley is a champion. He has also recorded the best version of Hot Cinders I have ever heard; under his talented fingers, Joe Lamb’s complex melodic ideas all make sense. Amazing Grace is a meditative interlude that hooks the gut before Tiger Rag shatters the inner peace with an unhumanly blur of 128th notes. He closes with Maple Leaf Rag at , a jazzy take on this warhorse, complete with scat chorus (although it’s a bit disconcerting to hear the A-section reduced to 14 measures).
The Spitznagel originals are also worthy contenders. The Smoky Rose is a lovely, relaxed tone poem that could easily be mistaken for a long-lost work by Billy Mayerl. Marty’s Blues is a gently ambling ode featuring Gershwin-like harmonies, while Newbie Eubie is full of Eubie-isms yet maintaining its originality. The lightning-fast Incandescent Rag lives up to its name and Seagull Shuffle is a fine stride opus. Of special note is The Train Town Rag, a complex piece full of new ideas which won the Scott Joplin Foundation’s 2010 composition contest.
Being an empty-nester at the time that video games began to exert their grip on the youth of the world, I missed out on the Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy and Super Mario Brothers. Their theme songs, which Spitznagel has adapted to ragtime, do not awaken childhood memories for me as they do for him, but his versions are enjoyable.
What exists on this disc by Martin Spitznagel is one of the most amazing and diverse collections of syncopated styles and genres to be found on a single CD. Whether it’s stride, ragtime, jazz, soundtracks, spirituals, blues, novelty or themes from computer games, it’s all included and no tempo has gone untried and no dynamic has been excluded in these performances. Highly recommended.
Available for $16.00 plus shipping from <www.rivermontrecords.com>.