Frank French and Scott Kirby, pianos
CD review by Jack Rummel
Bucktown Buck / St. Louis Rag / New Orleans Joys / Kismet Rag / At Midnight / Lily Queen / Broadway Rag / Sunflower Slow Drag / The Dream Rag / Kinklets / Ravenna / Something Doing / Sensation Rag / Pastime Rag No. 5 / Frog Legs Rag / Mister Joe / Belle of Louisville.
This exciting compact disc, which belies its understated cover and packaging, will be the ragtime recording to beat for 1996! Having said that, let me elaborate on why I think the way I do.
To be successful, a duo piano record must be more that just two people playing the same piece. The pianists must complement each other and the whole should be more than the sum of the parts. To maximize the result, the selections need to be arranged, yet ideally the performances should retain some of the magic that comes from spontaneity, and the timing between the two pianos must be precise. Frank French and Scott Kirby, I am excited to report, have done all of this and then some.
Their material is varied and strong. The album opens and closes with compositions by French. His Bucktown Buck, a stomper in the Morton tradition, gets a solid twenty-fingered kickoff, while his Belle of Louisville, perhaps the most frequently-played new rag of the 1990s, is alive with joyous twin-piano harmonies. Also representing new ragtime is Kirby's Ravenna, a delightfully romantic piece with beautifully ornamented inner voices. Another contemporary gem is At Midnight, an emotionally evocative tango by Hal Isbitz.
Five of the selections are Scott Joplin collaborations (Kismet Rag, Lily Queen, Sunflower Slow Drag, Something Doing and Sensation Rag), which grounds this disc in some solid classic rags. Add to that a couple of rousers by James Scott (Broadway Rag and Frog Legs Rag) and a number each by Arthur Marshall (Kinklets) and Tom Turpin (St. Louis Rag) and there is enough familiar ragtime so that listeners can both hum along and marvel at how French and Kirby have embellished these beloved scores.
And embellish they do! Within these classic rags we find cascading opposing runs, parallel and contrasting single-note melodies, effective counterpoint, lickety-split tandem harmonies and clever call-and-response motifs. Some ideas were unrehearsed, as an occasional muffed note will testify, but most were carefully thought out and are extremely effective.
Additional homage is paid to Jelly Roll Morton via his Spanish-tinged New Orleans Joys, his bluesy Mr. Joe, and also with Pastime Rag No. 5, an Artie Matthews composition which the boys do in a distinctly Mortonesque style. And although Eubie Blake is credited for preserving Jess Pickett's Dream Rag, this rough-hewn tango is clearly in the Morton mold and their collaborative efforts at free-form rhythm in their right hands while never losing the basic beat is nothing short of astounding.
One mustn't slight the pianos here. A Boesendorfer Imperial Grand ("big Buck") and a Boesendorfer Model 225 Grand ("little Buck") make great bedfellows and the boys take great delight in utilizing those nine extra bass notes on the Imperial. The sound is rich and intimate and the liner notes read well. My only complaint (picky, picky!) is with the cover: those who know these artists will recognize that Scott Kirby is pictured above Frank French's name and vice versa (a practical joke perhaps?).
The Bucktown Brothers have set the standard for twin-piano ragtime. This album gets a solid "ten" in my book. Don't miss it!
Available for $15.00 plus $2.00 shipping from Stomp Off Records, P.O. Box 342, York, PA 17405.