James P. Johnson

Parlor Piano Solos from Rare Piano Rolls

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Collectables' CD James P. Johnson: Parlor Piano Solos from Rare Piano Rolls relates to a pair of Biograph LPs recorded in 1970 and issued as Parlor Piano Solos, Vols. 1 and 2. These Biograph "Q" LPs were never easy to find when new, and when Biograph issued a handful of CDs in the early '90s, they were not among the ones made available in the new format. This collection represents a combination of both LPs, as originally pumped by piano roll expert and collector Michael Montgomery. Although the selections on the disc are generally unfamiliar even to those who know James P. Johnson's recordings well, they are highly desirable, as these rolls are among Johnson's earliest, made between 1917 and 1921. The program includes some Johnson originals that he did not revisit in his career as a recording artist, such as Innovation and It Takes Love to Cure the Heart's Disease. Likewise, some of Johnson's work as a hand player of rolls in popular tunes by others is featured, such as his reading of W.C. Handy's Loveless Love (a retread of Careless Love, a tune on which Johnson later based one of his own compositions) and Clarence Williams' Roumania.

Some experts in the piano music field have derided the veracity of hand-played piano rolls as a medium through which one can deduce the quality of a given player, especially rolls lacking information about expression such as these. This program is interesting as two rolls of Johnson's Caprice Rag were recorded a month apart, and they are considerably different in the playing, apart from the obvious differences in the mechanics of roll performance. Of course in 1970 there was no way to edit a piano roll other than to cover an obviously errant note with a piece of tape; Montgomery used a 1910 Steinway and let the rolls play as they were, making judicious choices in terms of tempo and pedaling. A lot of water has gone under the bridge in terms of technology as it relates to roll recording since 1970, and not all of the CD releases taken from Biograph "Q" LPs have retained their relevance. Collectibles' CD James P. Johnson: Parlor Piano Solos from Rare Piano Rolls is an exception, owing to the rarity of the material and the high quality of the work that went into making the master tape; it is recommended, and its return to the active catalog is most welcome.

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