Through more than three decades of recordings, we’ve come to expect excellence from Rick Benjamin’s Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. Even with that history in mind, this new CD is breathtaking. Every aspect of the performances—the technical playing, tone quality, balance, and even such momentary subtleties as a flashing passage from the piccolo or flute or a brief smear from the trombone – contributes to an exceptional result.
Unlike previous CDs released by PRO, such as those that focus on particular composers or performers like Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Joe Jordan, or more generally on Black Manhattan, this one is not built upon any single theme; rather, it is an assortment of rags, blues, and other musical types from the ragtime years.
Of the twenty-five selections, perhaps half are clearly rags or blues. Of these, some are by such notables as Scott Joplin (Cascades, in a new orchestration by Rick Benjamin), James Scott (Hilarity Rag), W. C. Handy (Beale Street and Yellow Dog), and Harry P. Guy (the ragtime waltz Echoes of the Snowball Club).
However, there are also a few writers rarely encountered, like Hubert Bauersachs, a well-known classical violinist and composer of the period who self-published two rags in 1922, one being the CD’s title piece, Deuces Wild. As for the non-rags included, we hear gems from such great composers as Jerome Kern (The Siren’s Song, and a medley beginning with Look for the Silver Lining) and the legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler. The title of Kreisler’s selection, Syncopations, might suggest ragtime, but the rhythms are not characteristics of that style. George L. Cobb had composed many rags, but here is represented by Lady of the Lake (1912), a lovely waltz. Noted march composer Henry Fillmore’s Slim Trombone (1918) must be one of the highlights of the CD, a rousing, fast-paced work bursting with his famous trombone smears, here articulated in varying and unexpected ways.
So the CD, while offering a good selection of rags, also provides a diverse and rounded sense of the era’s sounds. It ends with a great climax: a newly discovered set of orchestral selections from George Gershwin’s La La Lucille (1919). This is Gershwin at his beginning, writing his first complete musical. If it does not quite foreshadow the phenomenon that was to come, it shows that as a twenty-year-old he already wrote with greater inventiveness than most theater composers of the period.
In the ten-page booklet accompanying this CD, Benjamin acknowledges his producer and sound engineer Judith Sherman, winner of numerous Grammys, and her editing assistant Jeanne Velonis. Along with his willingness to share credit, this appreciation demonstrates Benjamin’s dedication to produce recordings at the finest level. The team effort gives us a thoroughly captivating and engrossing product.
Order Deuces Wild from paragonragtime.com/store.
Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Rialto Records 6006