Kitten on the Keys [3:20]
Dizzy Fingers [2:09]
Spring Song (After Mendelssohn) [2:11]
Mouse’s Hooves [2:56]
Lullaby from Mars [3:06]
Tune for Mademoiselle [3:39]
Tap Dance of the Chimes [2:34]
My Pet [3:25]
Mighty Lackawanna [2:32]
Sparkling Water (Valse Brillante) [1:28]
Greenwich Witch [2:47]
Grandfather’s Clock [3:08]
Coaxing the Piano [2:56]
Movie Ballet [4:02]
Charleston Chuckles [2:02]
Nickel in the Slot [3:00]
You Tell ‘Em, Ivories [2:56]
Humorestless (After Dvorák) [2:36]
Rag Doll Dimples [2:36]
Valse Mirage [2:38]
Blumenlied (Flower Song after Lange) [1:41]
Rhythm Venture [2:13]
Parade of the Jumping Beans [2:02]
Peru, Illinois, isn’t an especially big place – population under 10,000 at the 2000 census - but it has given birth to at least two very different, but highly influential musicians. One was the pioneering violinist Maud Powell, who was a Victor recording stalwart and a proselytiser of unflinching passion. The other was Edward Elzear ‘Zez’ Confrey, born around thirty years after Powell, and whom, for the rest of this review, we shall refer to as Zez Confrey.
Confrey was prolific, and known best as a ‘novelty’ composer and performer (he left behind piano roll recordings and lateral discs) who utilised the Ragtime craze to his considerable advantage. If he’s known for anything in particular it’s Kitten on the Keys but he did perform at the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in February 1924, where he shared the billing with Paul Whiteman and Gershwin – the actual notice was ‘assisted by Zez Confrey and George Gershwin’.
Yet as this selection demonstrates - and at least ten are apparently first ever recordings - Confrey’s range of influences ranged wider than his reputation might suggest. One of the great virtues of Mordecai Shehori’s disc is to expand our appreciation of these particular lineages, and to allow us to explore more fully the range of Confrey’s own stylistic ambitions.
Kitten on the Keys was part of a sweeping genre that stirred composers as widely divergent as Jaroslav Ježek in Czechoslovakia and Billy Mayerl in Britain, two prominent exponents of the Confrey-influenced muse. But we can also listen to the wistful Meandering, and the ‘Mendelssohn Ragtimed’ Spring Song. Mouse’s Hooves packs quite a punch in terms of narrative goings-on – from light-hearted to portentous, whereas Anticipation embodies a statelier salon ethos. There is also the rather charming Tune for Mademoiselle, which goes to show that Confrey could write romantically and add some coquettish little flourishes into the bargain. Impressionist hues haunt Tap Dance of the Chimes.
Dizzy Fingers sounds rather like a Tiger Rag paraphrase to me, which wouldn’t be altogether surprising since Confrey inhabited a milieu that would have known the song at first hand. Mighty Lackawanna is dreamy and reflective, to offset the more rumbustious vitality of his writing elsewhere, and Sparkling Water (Valse Brillante) is Chopinesque. Grandfather’s Clock is not the expected song of the same name – but Confrey’s certainly does chime. The to-ing and fro-ing of Coaxing the Piano must have made an impression on Mayerl and many a Rhythm Master, whilst Fauré and Ragtime stalk Wistfulness, though not quite as incongruously as that may sound. The mechanical winding down of Nickel in the Slot was part of a sub-genre that hasn’t lost its appeal, nor too the part-salonised Joplin of You Tell ‘Em, Ivories. The naughty segueing into Swannee River lifts the classical skit of Humorestless (After Dvorák) whilst Valse Mirage opens in grandiloquent quasi-organ fashion. Rhythm Venture reminds one of Gershwin – or maybe Gershwin in this mood reminds one of Confrey? – but surely Ježek must have known Parade of the Jumping Beans, which reminds one of the Czech wit’s drunkenly lurching Three Policeman Step.
With sensitive and authoritative performances Shehori steers us between the eddies of Confrey’s compositions. Brio and charm predominate, and rightly so, but deeper feelings are also on show.