Features and Reviews
Mitchell, Leyland Team Up at OTMH Concert, 8/10/2003
By Eric Marchese
Bill Mitchell, a veteran performer at Old Town Music Hall, and Carl Sonny Leyland, making his first formal appearance at the venerated venue, teamed up for a two-man concert on Sunday night, Aug. 10. Although many of the area's fans were at the Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival for the weekend, this dynamic duo drew around 45 fans who left the theater sated with good music and with smiles across their faces.
Proprietor Bill Field introduced Sonny Leyland, the England-born entertainer who came to southern California via New Orleans just a few years ago and who has already made a name for himself as one of the foremost purveyors of boogie-woogie, barrelhouse and blues music, with generous helpings of ragtime. Sonny started things off with "Suitcase Blues," written by Hersal Thomas, a great blues and boogie musician from a musical Texas family who died of food poisoning at age 16. Playing in the style of Albert Ammons, Sonny created numerous improvisations in the right hand of the piece, a standard blues with a boogie bass (in its main theme) and a second section that suspends the bass and replaces it with slurred-note figures.
Next up was Ammons' "Boogie Woogie Stomp," with its standard boogie harmonies (in the opening section) and a ringing signature phrase that employs both hands playing in parallel. Sonny again demonstrated his skill at improvisation on the piece before delivering an original, "On the Levee." "When I lived in New Orleans, I used to walk my dogs on the levee there," Sonny told us. At an easygoing pace, the piece has interesting harmonies, fascinating interplay between both hands and shimmering fingerwork and syncopations. Next up, another original, "Witches Kitchen," a minor-key boogie Sonny described as "a dark and spooky thing" with a shimmering right hand, tricky left hand and a definitely mysterious mood.
Using his best blues singer voice, Sonny then treated us to Roosevelt Sykes' vocal number "4 O'Clock Blues," giving the number an authentic sound. He wrapped up his solo set with one more original tune, the "Almond Avenue Stomp," named for the street of Sonny's current residence. The peppy, blues/rag-style piece has lots of boogie licks in a ragtime format, a driving boogie bass and many jazzy phrases in the treble.
Sonny then turned the stage over to Bill, who opened his set with Luckey Roberts' 1914 "Music Box Rag." Luckey, Bill told us, started out as a tumbler at age five, turned to singing and only later took up piano, yet he wound up teaching such notables as Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson and even George Gershwin. Bill gave the piece a steady pace and a jazz-milieu feeling, right down to its closing phrase, written to be played in stoptime.
Next, Bill told us he'd be playing five different pieces by the same composer – a person "not often named" as a op songster. For the audience member who made the correct guess, Bill would give a copy of "Echoes of Chicago," his 1982 album with Hal Smith. First up was "Mammy O' Mine" from 1917, then "Sugar," the 1924- '25 tune sung by Ethel Waters, then "Them There Eyes" and, from the late 1920s, "I'll Be a Friend with Pleasure," which Bill said was recorded by Bix Beiderbecke. Still no guesses, so Bill unleashed the most well- known number of the five, and the one Bill said would be "the one you're all going to recognize," last: "Sweet Georgia Brown." True, everyone did indeed recognize it right off the bat – yet no one in the crowd came up with the name of composer Maceo Pinkard.
Bill closed his solo set with Jelly Roll Morton's "Frog-I-More Rag," which he said has also been known as the "Froggie Moore" rag, after the ragtime pianist known by that name. With its upward chromatic phrases, the piece's opening section is quintessential Jelly Roll. The more lyrical trio is written high up in the treble, played more athletically by Bill on the repeat. Throughout, Bill added much improvisation – perhaps patterned after the composer's performance?
Bill stayed at the Boesendoerfer and, with Sonny at the Steinway, the duo fired up an improvised boogie in the key of G, both performers clearly enjoying the interactive duet process. Completing the piece, they named it "BW Macaroon," after Old Town's famous macaroons, and Bill offered a humorous alternate title, "The Macaroon-a." Their version of "Porcupine Rag" offered plenty of good back-and-forth.
Off their new CD, they performed the 1920 pop song "Breeze," by James F. Hanley, Ballard MacDonald and Joe Goodwin. Bill said that one version recorded in 1940 is fast, one slow, and that he and Sonny's version was slow. In fact, it was downright relaxed and easygoing. The pre-intermission number was much more up-tempo: the 1926 pop song "'Deed I Do," by Walter Hirsch and Fred Rose. A real stomper, the number had everyone at Old Town tapping their feet.
Bill opened the second half with a generous helping of Classic ragtimer James Scott: the peppy, rarely heard "Kansas City Rag," the even more rarely heard "Suffragette Waltz" from 1914 – a delicate, classical-style piece Bill said revealed "another side of James Scott's talent" – and the immortal "Ragtime Oriole." Bill then offered one of his favorite Eubie Blake tunes, the "Baltimore Todalo," which Bill said was unpublished until the 1960s even though it was written around 1908.
Sonny's solo set started with one of the few boogies available on sheet music – Hersal Thomas' "The Fives," a lively piece with an active bass that often merges with the treble, to which Sonny added frantic activity. Sonny then added muscular bass work to Cow-Cow Davenport's "Atlanta Rag," a piece taken from Carey Morgan's "Trilby Rag" and much more in the standard rag vein than most of Sonny's repertoire. Honoring a request, Sonny delivered piano and vocals to "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar," then a fairly recent original, "Almond Joys," a lively number with a ragtime bass, heavily syncopated treble and a Latin-beat (tango) interlude.
Bill took his seat at the second piano and the duo gave us the 1929 pop song by composer Paul Denniker and lyricist Andy Razaf, "S'posin'." Cooke's "Blame It on the Blues" is one of this duo's favorites – they like playing the final strain so much, they performed it three times, with heavy improvisation the third time around. Named after the seven Victrola mutts perched atop the console of the mighty WurliTzer, the completely improvised "Dog Pack Boogie" featured piercing, staccato high treble work by Sonny. As if on cue, Mr. Field took his place at the console and the threesome delivered "Darktown Strutters Ball" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to wind up a most entertaining evening.