Jerome Kern

Biograph Presents Jerome Kern from Rare Piano Rolls

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The ostentatiously titled Biograph Records Presents The Great American Composer Series: Jerome Kern Classic Movie & Broadway Show Tunes from Rare Piano Rolls (phew! Is that all of it?) was produced for LP release by Arnold S. Caplin in 1977. Biograph made a CD version of it in 1996 that wasn't very widely circulated; this one is a Biograph reissue through Collectables via Shout Factory. Despite the long title, this was a short LP to start with and makes for an even shorter CD; it contains piano roll performances, reproduced on a Steinway Duo-Art, of seven Kern standards and a medley from Show Boat. Five of the rolls featured here were cut and edited by Q.R.S. mainstay J. Lawrence Cook, who made more than 4,000 piano rolls in his 50 years with the company. Cook's work is distinctive and very elegant; the piece is somewhat reorganized to suit the sound of the player piano, and a small number of tasteful figures are added to brighten the usual Cook roll arrangement; for most folks, his particular manner of arranging is what we think of when we consider the sound of a player piano. Coming from the 1930s, many of these pieces were cut into piano rolls a little after the demand for the device began its slow decline. One selection that dates from the player piano's heyday is a sparkling reading of "Who?" as played by pianist Victor Arden in 1925; Paul Jouard's reading of "The Way You Look Tonight" is styled like cocktail piano in the manner of Frankie Carle and very different from Cook. The Show Boat roll reproduced here, though dated to 1928 in the track listing, is an "XP" roll made in the 1960s.

One must take issue with use of the word "rare" in the title; original copies of Scott Joplin's Connorized rolls are rare, Cook's rolls and XP medleys are not. This is a well-engineered recording and the selection decidedly makes for pleasant listening. However, the player piano medium is certainly not as friendly to Kern's music as it was to that of George Gershwin. Gershwin cut piano rolls himself and much of his music was clearly conceived at the piano, whereas Kern was all about melody and a subtly eccentric use of harmony.

If the short running time of Biograph Records presents The Great American Composer Series: Jerome Kern Classic Movie & Broadway Show Tunes from Rare Piano Rolls and other factors mentioned here do not prove a deterrent, then go for it. Bear in mind that for the right amount of money one can obtain a player piano even in 2007 -- a new one, they still make them -- and if so, then locating many of these "rare" rolls will not prove much of a problem, as several are still in print!

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