Recorded in 1968 and 1969, this record is by far the best way to get to know, love, and appreciate Eubie Blake, master of ragtime and gorgeous melodies. The taproot of jazz runs directly from Blake's generation up through all of those Eastern Seaboard ticklers, most significantly James P. Johnson and the school of what critics and historians have labeled Harlem stride piano. While his early historical recordings are wonderfully authentic, there exists no finer example of Eubie Blake on record than this double LP, covered with photos and informative liner notes and packed with Blake's incredibly dexterous performances. During his comeback as an aged wonder, there was a tendency for the public to regard him as little more than an entertaining curiosity. This attitude allowed for a superficial comprehension of Blake's background and served to trivialize his accomplished position in the evolution of 20th century music. 86 Years solves all of these problems. The first half of the program consists of rags. Blake plays them joyously, sometimes shouting and bursting into laughter as his hands work the keys. Eleven of these pieces are Blake originals, and on one or two occasions he prefaces the music with a story describing the circumstances under which the piece was composed. There's one by Joplin and two by John Philip Sousa, making for a strikingly accurate invocation of the musical scene within which Blake operated at the beginning of the 20th century. A portion of the album is specifically dedicated to theater music, and for most of these tunes Blake's old partner Noble Sissle is heard singing and chatting with the pianist. Whoever was responsible for recording these two elderly gentlemen and sharing the results with the public really did the world a great favor. Hearing them sing "If You've Never Been Vamped By a Brownskin, You've Never Been Vamped at All" is a rare treat. Finally, there are Blake's most harmonically advanced moments: a medley of James P. Johnson melodies, a stunning realization of Luckey Roberts' "Spanish Venus," and Blake's own masterpieces, unforgettably rendered: "Dixie Moon," "Blues, Why Don't You Let Me Alone," "Blue Rag in 12 Keys," and the lovely "Memories of You." This is Blake at his ancient best.
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