The title of this album works as something of a summation of the American music scene, circa 1974: More Scott Joplin Rags. This particular LP, a follow-up to conductor Gunther Schuller's previous collection of Joplin works, even made it as far as number 38 on the Billboard jazz charts -- pretty good for music that has as much relation to the popular jazz of that era as the Peking Opera. Of course it was nothing to do with musical styles and trends that caused the Joplin revival in the '70s. For those not yet born or residing in a cave, it was a hit film entitled The Sting that brought this about. While it was Marvin Hamlisch's performances and arrangements of this music that were featured on the movie soundtrack, the resulting Joplin craze led to great opportunities for other performers with a command of this historic ragtime music. These included pianist Joshua Rifkin, who recorded Joplin's complete solo piano works for the Nonesuch label, and Schuller, whose ambitious Joplin activities in the '70s included the premiere performances of most of the composer's arrangements and works for large ensemble. Predictably, there have been gripes about the Joplin jag of the '70s, ranging from pundits who feel lousy about the way certain other composers of Joplin's era continue to be ignored as well as complaints about the way ragtime itself was being played. Joplin, dead since 1917, was unfortunately not around to comment. While there is no educational benefit in dismissing all such criticism outright, it is also wrong to be overly negative about Schuller's efforts with this material just on the basis of philosophical and/or political points of view.
A group of superb musicians was assembled for these recordings, documenting the dozen pieces in the program over a period of four different recording sessions. The result is the farthest thing from a rushed, slapdash performance. The group is assumed to have also been enjoying a busy performance schedule based on the demand for Joplin material, so the colorful precision with which the music is played smacks more of love and experience than high-pressured whip-cracking. It is a music both gentle and delicate, and in retrospect it is understandable why it would have taken such a hold, albeit temporarily, in a commercial music scene full of overcooked fusion, sweaty art rock, and wimpy disco. The way Latin music came on strong in the '90s reflects a similar situation in some ways. A major difference is that ragtime was considered something of a "dead" music in the year of The Sting, unlike the ever-thriving Latin scene. The opinions of forensic critics examining the corpse have been uniform enough to have been expressed in lockstep unison without a hint of ragtime's intricate harmonies and syncopation. Apparently the music of Joplin and his peers was so watered down by Tin Pan Alley hacks that people got sick of it, plus the style itself seemed to reflect an earlier era. New exciting styles of jazz would soon come along to capture the public's attention. A heavily endorsed critical bias in jazz, described perfectly by Anthony Braxton as the "sweating brow syndrome," is often behind criticisms of Schuller's approach to Joplin, the composer himself not always protected from such snipes. The lack of an energetic rhythmic thrust, heated personal statements, or obvious musical climaxes have all been used as standards to criticize these types of performances -- despite the fact that these are actually all very positive things. Ignoring the "jazz police" has to be the best thing a listener can do when it comes to the subject of Joplin and the interpretations of his music by artists such as Schuller and his ensemble. While it is impossible to ensure total accuracy involving the interpretation of historic music from other eras, the Joplin revival of the '70s holds up well as an ambitious effort, deserving of continued circulation, its appeal not diminished in the least.