American composer, organist, and pianist William Albright was a major connoisseur of everything ragtime and a storied participant in the ragtime revival of the 1960s and '70s. Ragtime figures very significantly in his original works, as well, with Albright's Grand Sonata in Rag (1968) being among his best-known piano works in posterity. It remains a relatively little known attribute to Albright's legacy that he recorded all of Scott Joplin's piano music, from The Crush Collision March (1896) down to Silver Swan Rag, a work only known from a piano roll and awarded to Joplin on stylistic grounds. Albright recorded all 34 of Joplin's rags were at Middle Tennessee State University in just four days in December 1989 and MusicMasters issued this project as a two-disc set the following year. Albright covered the rest of Joplin's output -- marches, waltzes, collaborative rags, and the Mexican serenade Solace -- at West Georgia College in the summer of 1992 and MusicMasters had it out before the end of that year. Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century, and both label and artist are long gone; right about the time Albright passed away at age 52 in 1998, MusicMasters -- abandoned by its distributor -- closed its doors for good.
Nimbus Records -- which at one time faced similar difficulties, but has managed to bounce back -- is providing a valuable service in making these Albright/Joplin performances available once again. Of course, in the meantime numerous alternatives have entered into the catalog, perhaps most notably Guido Nielsen's straight-ahead, no-nonsense edition for Basta, but also those by John Arpin and Richard Zimmerman, in the latter case an older, LP-era recording not made available on CD until after the Albright had made its bow. All of these options are preferable to the very first complete set of Joplin rags made in the early '60s by ex-Western swing pianist Knocky Parker, never issued on CD but relevant here in that Albright is closer to Parker than the others in improvising a little here and there, varying repeats, adding small details, and very occasionally moving off the steady gait of ragtime tempo. To Joplin purists, this might seem like sacrilege, and indeed, most of what purists there are will already know of these recordings. However, Nimbus is reviving this set at a modest cost, and for most non-purists it should be perfectly fine. Albright's variants and interpolations are tasteful, not overdone like Parker -- who reconceived whole strains of Joplin rags -- and do not obscure the basic business of the composer. Moreover, Albright's approach is true to the spirit of the way this music was played back in Joplin's day and for long afterward; not exactly as it is in the print, rather with a variable approach to tempo and additional color and detail added in the playing. Albright's approach especially well serves certain more obscure Joplin titles; pieces like The Strenuous Life and The Sycamore stand out a bit more by virtue of the little touches that Albright slips into the music, and that does no harm to Joplin whatsoever. While Nimbus' Scott Joplin: The Complete Rags, Marches & Waltzes may be viewed in some quarters as an anachronism, you can always hear Joplin's music as it is played directly off the page; that is the effect of canonization into Western literature. The living tradition whereby Joplin was embellished to some extent -- that to which Albright belonged -- is a swiftly disappearing one in the 21st century, and on Nimbus' reintroduction of Scott Joplin: The Complete Rags, Marches & Waltzes to the marketplace, the set actually stands on its own as representative of that tradition.