Monday, December 25, 2017

Ragtime and Beyond: Reginald Robinson Remains a Master at His Rather Unique Craft -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Reginald R. Robinson 
w/ opening act Katherine Davis
SPACE, Evanston, IL
December 20, 2017

In telling you that the other day my friend Ken and I went to hear some ragtime piano music, you wouldn’t be silly for thinking one of the following:

● Did you go to see The Sting, the 1973 Oscar winner featuring music by ragtime legend Scott Joplin?

● Do you mean you went to see the fine Ragtime musical, which hit Broadway in 1998 and has been regionally popular ever since?

● Or did you somehow travel back to 1897 or so, when ragtime music was all the rage, after Joplin and others had performed it at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893?

No, no and no.

I enjoy The Sting and its heavy use of Joplin tunes, and conceivably the renewed relevancy of ragtime was why his "The Entertainer" was among the first songs my older sister learned to play on piano when we were kids in the mid-'70s.

I also very much like Ragtime, and have seen the musical multiple times, most recently in a resplendent 2010 production at Drury Lane Oakbrook.

But neither of these factored into our evening, and though I'm forever fascinated by the 1893 World's Fair--including its being central to the Joffrey Ballet's brilliant new version of The Nutcracker ballet--neither H.G. Wells or Dr. Emmett Brown have been by with a time machine lately.

Yet while Ken and I didn't actually travel back in time, our ragtime excursion did involve venturing into SPACE.

As in Evanston's rather nifty and comfortable music venue, in the back of Union Pizzeria on Chicago Ave. just south of Dempster.

There we enjoyed an excellent performance--and something of a musical history lesson--by gifted pianist, Reginald R. Robinson, whose innovative explorations of ragtime helped him win a MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius grant" in 2004.

Album available at
Thanks to the Chicago Tribune's excellent, longtime jazz critic Howard Reich, I'd learned of Robinson some years ago, and was mesmerized when I saw him at Jazz Showcase in early 2010.

Reich's written about Robinson a good bit in the intervening years, but though he did so again in previewing the SPACE show--which celebrated the release of Music of Reginald R. Robinson, a CD of orchestrated versions of his compositions with the River Raisin Ragtime Revue--my impetus for attending was actually a Cyber Monday email from SPACE offering tickets for just $5.

Which turned out to be one of the best bargains I've ever received.

With seats right up next to the stage--though on the left side, as pricier table seating occupies the central SPACE--the night of music began sublimely with Chicago blues & jazz singer Katherine Davis, opening at the behest of Robinson, who later noted they've been friends for decades.

Accompanied by an excellent, though still-in-college, pianist named Tony Milano, Davis--clearly a seasoned pro--delivered the type of delightful set one would have to be an ornery grump not to enjoy.

The singer shared she would be paying tribute to a late singer & songwriter named Alberta Hunter, but while everything Davis & Milano performed sounded great, I don't know exact song titles or origins.

Some would seem to perhaps be called "You Can't Tell the Difference After Dark," "I Ain't Crying For You"  and "My Handy Man," and along with doing some nice scatting, Davis noted her mission to "celebrate life," which certainly felt apt.

Although the new Music of Reginald R. Robinson album being celebrated features orchestrations of his music--recorded in March at Eastern Michigan University with the River Raisin Ragtime Revue--at SPACE Robinson performed solo, including several of the songs that are on the CD.

In addition to the quality of the compositions, and Robinson's sublime piano playing, the experience was enhanced by Reginald speaking about each song's year of creation, impetus and style, which on many tunes goes well beyond ragtime.

The first two tunes performed, both dating from 2015, were inspired by The House on Mango Street, a novel by another MacArthur Fellow, Sandra Cisneros, who--if I understood correctly--Robinson met at a gathering of "Geniuses" in recent years.

Yet these two numbers were entirely different from one another. The first, "Monkey Business"--which opens the new album--is what Robinson described as a "Mexican polka."

The next, "Esperanza," has a "'70s sound" and both Ken and I were quite reminded of the piano coda on "Layla" (by Derek & the Dominos"), while I also caught strains of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons' "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."

Far from ragtime, indeed.

And while Robinson's next song, "Adventures in Wonderland," was some wondrous ragtime, his pointing out his desire to "do something interesting with my left hand" in writing it added considerable enlightenment in watching him play it.

Other quite fine pieces performed, covering a variety of styles, included "PassioƱera," "To Mimic," "Doing the Sugar Heel," the tango-ish "Sweet Envy" and "Head Over Heels, Over You," which was something of a tear-jerking waltz.

Also sadly beautiful was "Naomi," which Robinson wrote in memory of a wife's friend who had died in a car accident. He said it was the first song the River Raisin Ragtime Revue wanted to orchestrate.

Throughout his introductions, Robinson mentioned not only Scott Joplin, but other greats who had inspired him, such as WC Handy, Jelly Roll Morton and Earl "Fatha" Hines, who factored into the penultimate "Mr. Murphy's Blues."

The performance ended with a 2006 composition by Robinson called "Footloose," which he wrote to honor "a retiring MacArthur Foundation member named Jack."

Though I had bought a CD called Man Out of Time after the 2010 show and had Reginald Robinson sign it, Ken and I did not wait in the long line to do so this time.

I can only imagine the music with an orchestra on Music of Reginald R. Robinson is delightful, and I hope to hear it. (It isn't on Spotify.)

But hearing Robinson play his works alone on piano has repeatedly proven joyful, with Ken now corroborating that this is indeed a rather special artist.

For an incredibly low price, with a wonderful opening act, without having to travel far in time to reach SPACE, it was an evening of true delight.

Even genius.

To give you a sense of Reginald Robinson, here is a YouTube clip of him performing "Sweet Envy":

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