Leslie De'Ath

Billy Mayerl: A Miscellany for Solo Piano

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Leslie De'Ath completely gives into a whim with this album of his favorite pieces by English composer/pianist Billy Mayerl. Mayerl isn't well known outside of England, but in the 1920s and '30s, and afterward, he was on the radio, popular in London's music theaters and operating a correspondence course to teach tens of thousands of people syncopation via records and booklets. His lasting legacy, however, has been not his theater works or songs for radio and film, but his piano music. "Whimsy" is a word that suits this music more than any other. Mayerl began his schooling as a classical pianist, but even as a teenager worked in hotels and cinemas, quickly picking up the music that was coming over from America. The variety of his music -- even within a single two- or three-minute piece -- reflects a mixture of the traditional and popular, classical, and jazz, high brow and low, that "resists easy categorization," as De'Ath states in his notes. The livelier pieces, like Postman's Knock, Antiquary, or Trapeze, are often compared to those of Zez Confrey and George Gershwin, for their fleet-fingered acrobatics and their melodic charm, respectively, but even at Mayerl's most inventive, there isn't quite the same level of manic ingenuity as Confrey or consistent memorability of Gershwin, although it is impressive that "Clowning” manages to squeeze in recognizable references to "Pop Goes the Weasel," "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush," and "Three Blind Mice" in less than two minutes. Mayerl frequently was inspired by nature, as many of the titles in this collection indicate. Ladybird Lullaby, The Forgotten Forest, and other character pieces are more like turn of the twentieth century parlor pieces updated with bits of jazz and blues harmonies and rhythms. Combine those unexpected sounds with a lot of insouciance and some degree of yearning and sentimentality that isn't indulgent in any way, and there you have the music of Mayerl. De'Ath makes it all sound like Mayerl wrote spontaneously and easily, without too much consideration for the formalities of composition, whatever he felt like writing. It's music that enchants and amuses, and sometimes dazzles, without demanding anything of the listener other than some of his/her time.

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