I have been curious about this album for nearly as long as I have been with this paper. We launched in 2016 with me as a loyal reader and very occasional book reviewer. I didn’t begin album reviews until 2018 and Scott Yanow reviewed Invincible Syncopations before I had a chance to hear it. As the webmaster, I link names that appear in our articles back to a review or article about that person. Whenever Max Keenlyside or Vincent Mathew Johnson has been mentioned in our paper in the last six years I have linked it to that review by Scott.
The beautiful cover of this album has become more familiar to me than many on my shelf, but until recently I had no conception of its contents. Only the noble claim that a living ragtime composer was worthy of an album-length tribute from a living ragtime pianist. Think about that for a moment. Why don’t musicians play each other’s compositions anymore?
When I listen to original swing music from Glenn Crytzer, Keenan McKenzie, Danny Jonokuchi, or many others, I frequently long for the days when it was normal for others to record your compositions, sometimes even before you did. I recently discovered that a favorite Dylan song I knew from my ’90s youth was only commercially released with him playing it in 1991, on the Bootleg Series, but had been covered by dozens in the intervening 30 years. Most jazz releases I hear from new bands include a band original or two, occasionally an album’s worth. Given the hesitancy of other bands to cover these titles and the abysmal album sales in the streaming era, it is very likely most of these new jazz titles, however good, go unheard within a few years of their recording. Just because a composition isn’t 98 years old doesn’t mean it isn’t worth listening to or exploring the depths of!
The ragtime community, being so focused on composition to begin with, and still close to the tradition of acquiring sheet music to play yourself at home, does not have any hesitation in performing works by their contemporaries. Matthew de Lacey Davidson made albums of the works of contemporary composers including Robin Frost and Donald Ashwander, others have released similarly artist focused albums or various artists collections of works by their contemporaries. “Ragtime Angels” like the late Danny Matson have also commissioned work from contemporary composers, with several such albums available on Rivermont. Other commissioned titles, marking a milestone birthday or wedding anniversary of the sponsor, may only be available to hear in performance on YouTube. Several compositions of the last 50 years, like David Thomas Roberts’ “Roberto Clemente” have even become standards in the community, something that can’t be said for traditional jazz.
The closest I can find to that phenomenon in the current traditional jazz scene is when a musician brings his composition with him to different bands. Jonathan Doyle’s “Sweet is the Night,” which he recorded with his own group and then with the Fat Babies on their record Uptown comes to mind. The chance to explore a composition in different contexts is one of the things that makes jazz fandom a unique experience. So may I request that any working musicians reading this, by permission of course, and with acknowledgment, make an attempt to include the amazing works being composed by your contemporaries in your sets and on your albums?
Please excuse my above rant. My decision to take another bite at a now seven-year-old apple was with a thought in mind of the unique circumstance of the album, and curiosity about where the participants have been since its release in early 2017 when both men were roughly 25 years old! You read that right. At just 25 Vincent Mathew Johnson had a corpus of new and innovative ragtime works worthy of an album-length tribute by another young star of the ragtime festival scene.
Johnson began teaching himself piano after hearing someone play Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer when he was 12. Fortuitously based in California with its strong ragtime community he was able to find the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club in Pasadena where he could both hear and play a variety of ragtime. He also received formal training in music theory as a teen, enrolling in courses offered by California State University.
Keenlyside and Johnson made contact over the internet around 2007, when both were about 15, with Johnson sharing his compositions, some perhaps only playable by a computer. That isn’t so weird. Piano rolls, an important inspiration and source material in ragtime, often include added embellishment that no human hand could play. When his compositions started to be well received he focused more on playability.
Johnson’s first interest was in the novelty piano style of the late 1920s, the tail end of ragtime and a predecessor to the novelty prominent in the revival of the 1950s. In 2013 he self released My Pet: Novelty Piano Solos Of The Twenties & Thirties. The collection included his often challenging favorites of the era. There are a few copies on Amazon, one reviewer calls it “lo-fi” recording quality but none other than Max Morath heaps praise on the man behind the keys, then barely into his 20s.
After changing gears to focus more on classic era ragtime composers Johnson released two folios of his sheet music, with 20 titles between them, as The Authentic Sounds of Ragetime Piano, yes “rage.” Jack Rummel’s review of the folios says the motivation was that Johnson noticed a multitude of emotions expressed in classic ragtime but anger had not been one of them and sought a corrective. But, according to Rummel, only two compositions in the folios fit an angry mood; That Infuriating Rag, and Invincible Rag.
The folios are the source of several of the 19 tracks on Invincible Syncopations, but interestingly “Invincible Rag” from the folios is not one of them. In a YouTube appearance from near that time, he mentions around 100 finished compositions and his friend Max would have had access to more of them than most.
Max Keenlyside lives about as far from Pasadena as one could get in North America, on Prince Edward Island in Canada. He started to play at age nine and had already been composing “a couple years” when he was first sent compositions from Johnson. He recalls being “gobsmacked” and a little jealous. He has been no slouch, active since his teens across Canada, the US, and even Argentina he has been featured on several other Rivermont releases.
His 2010 debut album on Rivermont, KeenlyStride, which is down to fewer than 30 copies left in their last call section, featured covers of classics by Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, and others. But it didn’t include his own compositions, which he inserts into his shows, some of them regularly performed by others. That was rectified on Mostly Max, featuring eleven of his compositions alongside a suite of Willie “The Lion” Smith titles and one from James Scott. He can also be heard on the several various artist collections of new ragtime compositions released by Rivermont.
Both remain active, Johnson can be found regularly uncovering obscure classic era rags at @NoveltyPiano on YouTube. Max can be found @maxkeenlyside on YouTube and has a website at www.maxpiano.ca.
Invincible Syncopations may be the peak so far for both of artists, Johnson because his works are shown in such good light (I found no albums from him besides the 2013 album of classics) and Max because of so masterfully taking on the unique challenge of being the first to record new work from a contemporary, a friend no less. When you record a classic from Joseph Lamb you have hundreds of reference points to build on, and no worry about feedback from the composer.
Keenlyside’s own observation that the rags on this album fall somewhere between the avant-garde push of modernist ragtime and strict adherence to classic ragtime conventions sums it up perfectly. While distinctly fresh and creative, and often challenging, these new compositions are recognizably ragtime in the artistic vein that Joplin strove for.
Red Envelope Rag stood out enough to Brandon Byrne for him to include it in his Vignettes column and was immediately recognizable to me when I heard it on the album because of its pentatonic scale. That Bagel Rag, uses Klezmer scales, and Milk and Honey also involves a distinctly Jewish tinge. Listing off all the rags is unnecessary but let’s just say there is a lot of food involved, and where not food, places. The music itself is full of cleverness.
The liner notes by William McNally are unusually good at helping the non musician follow the compositional intricacies and intentions of each track, while often explaining those evocative titles. The musician will find an outstanding amount of depth, creativity, and perhaps their next challenging composition to learn. A folio of the music on this album is available.
The artwork throughout the 24 page booklet is made up of attractive sheet music illustrations for each title. It is the cover art by Mindy Yi that initially so lodged this album in my mind. This is a must have album from Rivermont’s ragtime catalog that any fan wishing to support a vibrant ragtime community is sure to enjoy for years.