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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Edward Elzear "Zez" CONFREY (1895-1971)
Dizzy Fingers
The Red Lantern
By the Waters of Minnetonka
Waltz Mirage
Greenwich Witch
Kitten on the Keys
Kinda careless
The Sheik of Araby
Heaven’s Garden
Tap Dance of the Chimes
That thing called Love
Midsummer’s Nightmare
Coaxing the Piano
Concert Etude
My Pet

Fantasy of Today [Classical and Jazz Versions]
Recorded on piano rolls by Zez Confrey, realized by Artis Wodehouse
WARNER CLASSICS 0927 49309-2 [61.49]


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Edward Elzear – better known to the world as Zez – Confrey was born in Peru, Illinois in 1895 – hometown of another pioneering American musician of an earlier generation, the violinist Maud Powell. He studied at the Chicago Musical College and began work as a band pianist before being hired in 1915 as a music demonstrator for a publishing company – something George Gershwin incidentally was doing at pretty much the same time. Composing prolifically he hit the big time early with Kitten on the Keys, still the emblematic embodiment of Confrey’s music and indeed beyond, and his other huge hit, Stumbling. At the same time he took part in the famous Aeolian Hall concert at which his contemporary Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue received its premiere. Though he continued to compose prolifically real success never returned to Confrey and musical fashion passed him by. He seems not to have diversified into other forms, operetta say or musical theatre – though as one or two of these rolls show he had an ear for impressionist devices – and he must have seemed something of a curiosity when he died in 1971.

This Warner Classics disc is part of a series of Piano Rolls – two volumes are devoted to Gershwin and one to the rolls of Jelly Roll Morton. It collates the rich variety of Confrey’s output – popular songs, ballads, parodies, novelties and his welding of ragtime and jazz elements with bluesy inflections and impressionistic tinges. By Confrey’s day piano rolls had evolved from the hand-punched performer-less creation to a sophisticated mixture of performance and post-performance "doctoring" (like a recording edit in other words). As the notes explain making a piano roll could involve some or all of the various mechanisms available and most would have required editing. This disc therefore consists of rolls played by Confrey but subsequently octave doubled or chord spread or otherwise doctored by adding extra holes to the role to increase the complexity of the piece (and frequently indeed to tip it over beyond the bounds of actual playability, should one wish to replicate the roll on an ordinary piano). The primary function of the roll, of course, was not as an archival objet d’art but as a commercial mechanism or tool to sell sheet music to the public. It therefore lacks, when doctored in this way, the intrinsic status of a historical object in its own right – though it’s certainly not without considerable interest viewed sympathetically. As an accurate representation of a pianist’s playing it is open to serious debate but in the case of Ampico or other rolls in classical music there are numerous cases of pianists never having made commercial discs and these remain the only preserved examples of their playing, however imperfect the mechanism of recording and reproduction may be (I reviewed Fanny Bloomfield-Zeisler’s rolls on this site not so long ago and they were fascinating).

Doubtless the manner of the realization by Artis Wodehouse will be the subject of informed debate but I enjoyed the disc thoroughly. Dizzy fingers is an ingenious opener and The Red Lantern starts as a ragtime stomp before becoming graced by exotic flurries. By the Waters of Minnetonka comes complete with jazz breaks and cascading arpeggios but Novelette strikes another chord – this little quasi-improvised vaguely impressionist piece reveals his debt to Debussy, certainly, but also to that generation of American impressionists who were so influential, such as Eastwood Lane (who also influenced the cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, some of whose piano works bear resemblance to Confrey’s own pieces in this style). The Waltz Mirage is a case of those "assisted" rolls full of added notes. Greenwich Witch, a jaunty and insouciant piece, shows the cross-pollination between genres in American popular music and jazz in the 1920s. As Jeff Taylor’s notes point out this was a tune quoted by the supreme jazz piano virtuoso of the 1920s and the only pianist capable of standing up to Louis Armstrong as an improviser, Earl Hines. It does also show how Confrey’s music very quickly swept into the collective consciousness.

As for Kitten on the Keys there’s stride, trilling, boogie, key changes and mobile tempo doubling jazz-style left hand. It never fails to hit the spot. Heaven’s Garden by contrast is a sentimental little fin de siècle tune and Humorestless an affectionate fun-poking parody of Dvořák (naturally). Elsewhere That Thing Called Love will bring jazz lovers up short – the verse is the St Louis Blues (but then W.C. Handy who wrote it or, more accurately, was given commercial credit for it, was more an assimilator and synthesiser than an originator). Relaxation is tinged with MacDowell tristesse and the Concert Etude a Chopin paraphrase and not obviously motivated by humorous intent.

There is much to enjoy in Warner’s latest roll offering. There’s plenty of Jazz Age verve and not a little reflective nostalgia too. I doubt you have a Pianola so this CD will do just fine.

Jonathan Woolf

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