Billy Mayerl

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There's something really charming about this fellow's showy parlor piano. He's very adept, the melodies are pleasant, and all that's missing is a pair of large potted aspidistras. Mayerl's dexterity is conspicuously prominent at all times. The liner notes carefully emphasize how he made his music sound deceptively easy to play. Anyone who enrolled in his "correspondence course in modern syncopation" apparently learned at once how technically challenging the Mayerl manner really was. Most everyone who's ever written about him dwells on the man's virtuosity, faithfully echoing the spirit of the original hyperbolic Mayerl advertisements. Jelly Roll Morton could have simultaneously out-boasted and out-syncopated Mayerl without even putting down his cigarette, but that's entirely beside the point. Mayerl had formidable concert pianist chops. He composed and performed a sort of quirky, jazz-inflected pop music, and was also capable of handling such jazz standards as "Limehouse Blues" and "Ten Cents a Dance" with energetic facility. Most jazz pianists of the day would have used a stronger bassline, working the left hand with greater caloric force. Mayerl was a dazzler who constantly showed off his ability to execute complicated runs at terrific velocities. Note that his "Chopsticks" is not the famous two-fingered trifle, but sounds instead more like a reconstituted "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater." On "Punch," from the "Puppets" suite, Mayerl comes close to actually swinging like an authentic jazz pianist, and we can only guess at who he had been listening to: Teddy Wilson? Frankie Carle? Victor Borge? Chico Marx? While the album is mostly filled with piano solos, there are a couple of friendly appearances by clarinetist Van Philips, the wonderfully goofy "Match Parade" involving xylophonist Rudy Starita, and a swell piano duet between Mayerl and his wife Jill. This retrospective concludes with the four-part "Aquarium" suite, during which Mayerl is heard emitting endless arpeggios in front of his own pit orchestra. The effect is more than ever that of a middle-'30s movie set, possibly inhabited by several dozen nameless employees of Mr. Busby Berkeley. For those who enjoy this sort of good clean fun, here is a time warp well worth visiting.

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