Jazz Heritage Society's Ragtime is yet another edition on CD of a very well traveled recording once issued under the title of Ragtime Back to Back; it features the back-to-back talents of pianist/composers William Bolcom and William Albright in Scott Joplin and James P. Johnson works, respectively; it originally appeared as an LP on the University of Michigan label in 1976. There was a time when Ann Arbor, MI, was a flashpoint for traditional jazz and ragtime; in the 1950s, the Boll Weevil Jazz Band was a hot ticket, and figures like Bolcom and Albright were major players in the ragtime revival of the 1960s and 1970s. Ultimately, this disc resurfaced on MusicMasters and Musical Heritage Society; Jazz Heritage Society is the jazz-oriented label belonging to MHS.
At the time this was made at the University of Michigan's Hill Auditorium in June 1975, Joplin's collaborative rags -- works co-written with other composers, achieved through alternating strains -- were relatively rare, and Bolcom had already given this subgenre a shot in the arm in 1971 through recording the album Heliotrope Bouquet for Nonesuch. By April 2009, more than three decades had elapsed and practically every note with Joplin's name attached to it has been recorded numerous times in a bewildering array of choices. Bolcom's Joplin playing has the advantage of being clean, even, and respectful without quite subscribing to the Joshua Rifkin interpretation of Joplin's mandate that "it is not right to play ragtime fast." Bolcom's tempos are brisk without racing -- which was probably what Joplin was militating against in the first place -- and are not leaden and under-syncopated, which Rifkin's often were.
While they did write one rag together and were close friends, to judge from this disc, Albright was an entirely different animal from Bolcom. Impetuous, loose, and driving, Albright's interpretations of James P. Johnson's difficult rags are played with a slight sense of reckless abandon. This was the first time Johnson's music had ever been treated as repertoire and Albright was simply not a pianist who would stand on ceremony, even with such a milestone at hand. Nevertheless, Albright's enthusiasm for this music is contagious, and his deeply felt, communicative reading of Eccentricity remains a joy to hear. Overall, it is safe to say that, from the standpoint of re-creative interpretation as opposed to the stride master's own numerous recorded interpretations, these Albright recordings are still the best ever recorded, and the standard observed by Bolcom in Joplin's collaborative rags is equally high. Some discs keep coming back and coming back because there is no way for the market to shake their commercial purpose, but discs like Jazz Heritage Society's Ragtime stay in the catalog simply because they're very good, and if you are into Joplin this belongs on your shelf no matter how deeply one has bought into him.