Rialto Records' The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra (Finally) Plays The Entertainer responds to a longstanding requirement of the PRO's fans that leader Rick Benjamin was unable to answer for a long time; that Scott Joplin's The Entertainer and other familiar nonpareils belonging to the genre of classic ragtime enter the band's book. The "standard" texts of these works in orchestral garb would historically be publisher John Stark's The Red Back Book and that's what the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble purported to offer on its Grammy-winning 1973 LP of that name, so what was the reason for the delay? For one thing, every one of those Grammy-winning arrangements was to some extent modified, if not completely re-orchestrated, by Gunther Schuller. Schuller recognized in 1973 what both Rick Benjamin -- and even Bunk Johnson, when he used The Red Back Book in the 1940s, also came to realize -- in terms of quality, practicality and musicality, the Stark arrangements require some tweaking. They were made by inexperienced orchestrators, including Joplin himself, whose ability in this area would improve with time. But when he arranged James Scott's Frog Legs Rag in 1906 -- as is heard here, practically unchanged from the original Stark print -- Joplin arrived at a result that sounds top heavy, vacant in the center of the texture, and undynamic, one typical for the Stark arrangements.
Thankfully, this is the only Stark arrangement heard on The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra (Finally) Plays The Entertainer. Working from the Paragon's standing library of 9,000 period theater orchestra arrangements, and with his own able resources as an arranger capable of working within the orchestral style of the period, Benjamin has prepared a program that presents an authentic alternative universe to that exemplified by The Red Back Book. Although the bill is dominated by Joplin rags -- as it should be; after all, that's what the PRO's audience was asking for -- Benjamin also mixes in some other elements from the classic ragtime school; namely, Joseph Lamb, Arthur Marshall, and James Scott in arrangements much kinder to his music than that fashioned by Joplin. And, to use the parlance of the era, this Rialto disc is "tops": the PRO's use of period percussion and its greater understanding of the underlying rhythmic punctuations of this music even exceeds that of the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble of old. Moreover, these orchestral performances are more relaxed, lightly swingin,g and possessed of period charm than most others of their kind. For devotees of the PRO -- or ragtime music in general -- Rialto Records' The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra (Finally) Plays The Entertainer will well prove worth the wait.