BACK HOME IN TENNESSEE, JOHNNY MADDOX
by David Reffkin, Director, The American Ragtime Ensemble; Producer/Host, "The Ragtime Machine" (KUSF, San Francisco)
The Johnny Maddox retrospective continues with what might be described as a good general retrospective of music associated with his home state of Tennessee and the musical memories embodied there. The beautifully packaged liner notes offer informative biographical and anecdotal comments, augmented with striking images of the sheet music covers, archival photographs, including the portrait of Johnny's great aunt Zula. Every element contributes to the overall concept of the CD. For example, Zula is recognized as having played with an all girls' orchestra at the St Louis World's Fair of 1904, and in fact she taught Johnny piano lessons. Not a bad start to being closely tied to the sources of the music he loves.
It should be noted for the uninitiated that, contrary to what one might expect of the typical 'saloon' player, Maddox is an artist. He does not simply apply a bag of tricks to melodies, and he doesn't play every tune with the same tempo and dynamics. The performances are indeed musical. In this CD, one can compare any two pieces to demonstrate this point. Ernest R Ball's "Let the Rest of the World Go By" (1919), a sentimental waltz if ever there was one, is played with the thoughtful, hesitating/pulsing nuances that are critical to conveying the message of the song. Contrast this to "Broken Doll" (1916) of James Tate, just a few years earlier and reflected as such in the more bouncier ragtime of the day, but keeping the sentimental, story-telling qualities. In both he uses the device of key changes to vary the repeats of the melody, but the contribution of that effect remains distinctive to each song. This is the work of a true craftsman!
The last track on this recording particularly drew my attention, a tango called "Manzanilla" (1891), by Alfred Robyn. I have performed this for years with my American Ragtime Ensemble, and never thought I would hear the piano version. Not only is the piece here, it is lengthened with a bit of original material (justifiable, since the composition is rather short).
The naturally flowing programming, the sound quality and the carefully researched notes and graphics all make the recordings in this series a satisfying musical (and dare I say, educational) experience. But most of all, one listens with a growing appreciation of the work of one of America's legendary pianists.