Features and Reviews
Rhodes and Pinsker Tackle the Harlem Giants in Stride
By Eric Marchese
For its Mother's Day ragtime concert, Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo featured Bob Pinsker and Robbie Rhodes with a specialized program of music composed by the "Harlem giants" – specifically, James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Willie "the Lion" Smith and Luckey Roberts. These four men accounted for a large percentage of the great music to come out of the east coast in the 1920s and '30s and, in retrospect, the evening concert, which ran just over two hours, could easily have filled twice as much time and still only barely scratched the surface.
Even so, Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Pinsker served the 50 or so OTMH patrons a mighty tasty sampler of the works of Eubie, Willie the Lion, Luckeyth and the oh-so-great James P.
Bob opened the show with Eubie's famed "Baltimore Todalo," whose octave movements in the bass and its various treble licks typify Eubie's style. Next, Bob treated us to a rare find: The score, from Eubie's own manuscript, of an untitled foxtrot written around 1914 (Bob's educated guess). The piece's opening section has the same dynamic "Baltimore" sound as many of Blake's best.
Bob then performed "Memories of You," the hit tune from Eubie's "greatest show," "Blackbirds of 1930," co-written with Andy Razaf. Bob performed the famous song as a piano solo, with arpeggios and flourishes and a fine degree of expression. Bob's next selection: "Dictys on Seventh Avenue," which Eubie wrote in 1942 while taking a course in the Schillinger System of music at New York University. The piece, Bob noted, "melds modern harmony with Eubie's own melodic gifts."
Bob closed his set with a piece he termed a "semi-classic" or "fusion" work of Eubie's from the late 1930s: "Blue Thoughts," published by W.C. Handy Brothers in 1936. Bob demonstrated his keyboard prowess with the piece, which sounds much like the music of George Gershwin, ultra-sophisticated and modern for its time (especially the interlude that leads back into the final reprise of the A theme).
With Robbie at the Boesendoerfer and Bob on his violin, we heard "Serenade Blues," a Sissle and Blake song from 1922. Built around a well-known composition of Franz Schubert, the piece fuses classical music with the syncopated style so well developed by the Harlem giants. Robbie then opened his solo portion of the show with Luckey's "Junk Man Rag," played in the lively up-tempo style definitive of the Harlem sound, with lots of drop-bass and piano roll-style trills. Robbie then did a piano solo version of "I'm Just Wild About Harry," the signature tune from Sissle and Blake's "Shuffle Along," first as a waltz, then a more up-tempo dance tune and finally as a bouncy one-step laden with piano roll-style licks and tricks.
With "Troublesome Ivories," Robbie delivered more piano roll licks plus hints of the Novelty Rag style. Robbie then played one of Eubie's most rare pieces, the "Baltimore Buzz," with its many ear-catching key changes. Robbie closed his solo set with Luckey's signature Stride piece "Mo'lasses," ably handling its demanding bass part, riff treble in the opening theme and a main section done very high on the treble with exciting, jagged syncopations.
To close the first half, Bob and Robbie combined on Eubie's 1914 foxtrot "The Chevy Chase," with Bob on violin and Robbie on piano. Except for a brief solo by Robbie in the trio, Bob carried the melody throughout most of the piece, and both provided foot-stomps on the rests – on the beat, of course. To bring the piece home, Robbie peppered the ending with piano-roll licks and Bob added a pizzicato to close the tune.
For Mother's Day, Robbie and Bob opened the program's second half with the Clarence Williams-Willie "the Lion" Smith song "Let Ev'ry Day Be Mother's Day," with Robbie on piano and Bob doing double duty, on violin and vocals. Bob's next solo: "After Hours," a 1923 Johnson piece utilizing the style that only later came to be known as boogie. Though published as a piano Novelty, Bob said the piece "doesn't sound like any piano Novelty I know."
Bob patterned his rendering of James P.'s "Eccentricity Waltz" after Johnson's own 1918 and 1921 piano rolls, mastering the piece's serene opening sections, intricate third section and concert-style ending. Next, Bob played and sang "The Go-Go Bug" from the 1923 Luckey Roberts-Alex Rogers show "Go-Go," then closed his solo set with a piano version of the song "Harlem Choc'late Babies on Parade" from the 1926 James P. Johnson-Henry Creamer show "Geechi: A Dusky Romance," which Bob transcribed from a 1926 piano roll and has since mastered.
With Robbie returning to the stage, the duo delivered a song from the 1929 James P. Johnson-Perry Bradford musical "Messin' Around," which Bob noted was "the dying gasp of all-black shows" on Broadway. Originally titled "Your Love I Crave," the song was eventually renamed "Your Love Is All That I Crave." With Robbie at the piano, Bob played the violin and did the vocals on the song's corny yet cute lyrics.
Robbie went solo on James P.'s "Snowy Morning Blues," a lilting tune to which he gave a sprightly execution. He followed with his piano solo version of "Ivy, Cling to Me," a pretty James P. ditty he heard at the Griffith Park carousel more than 20 years ago. Next was Willie the Lion's beloved "Echo of Spring," whose simple, unadorned treble was embellished by Robbie and the piece given a pretty coda.
Robbie concluded with two more James P. Johnson tunes: "Mule Walk" (with "On the Trail" interpolated into its middle), a quintessential Johnson Stride tune given a nice arrangement by Robbie; and a performance of Johnson's seminal Stride tune "Carolina Shout," patterned after the piano roll arrangement.
Bob returned to the Steinway and the duo delivered a four-handed version of the Johnson tune "If I Could Be With You An Hour Tonight." Transcribed from the piano roll Johnson and Waller cut in 1927, this arrangement has a pleasing sound and an exciting one-step ending.
With the Mighty WurliTzer down for repairs, Robbie and Bob handled the show's encore section by delivering a socko, four-handed version of "The Charleston," the James P. Johnson piece that helped define 1920s pop music.