Ragtime master Reginald Robinson will mark the release of his new album with a performance on Wednesday at SPACE in Evanston. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)
By Howard Reich Contact Reporter
December 13, 2017
One of the most distinctive recordings of 2017 came from the imagination of a Chicagoan who has done more to champion and rejuvenate ragtime music in the past 25 years than anyone.Reginald Robinson won a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” in 2004 for the singularity of his ragtime compositions, his ingenuity as a pianist and his unyielding advocacy of an otherwise unjustly overlooked art form.
Or, as the MacArthur Foundation put it, “A gifted pianist, he evokes the range of passion and liveliness contained within the classic ragtime compositions of the early 1900s. He has explored in detail the great works of Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake and other classical ragtime composers and has composed dozens of harmonically daring, structurally complex works.”
But what happens when Robinson’s remarkable compositions are orchestrated, a range of strings, horns and percussion giving voice to ideas previously expressed on the piano alone?
The answer came in vivid form on “Music of Reginald R. Robinson,” in which the River Raisin Ragtime Revue — an ensemble based in Michigan — recorded new orchestrations of landmark Robinson compositions and previously unheard works. Orchestrated by William Hayes and performed by the River Raisin Ragtime Revue under the direction of William Pemberton, the live album brought forth musical ideas hidden deep in Robinson’s scores.
So deeply, in fact, that they proved a revelation even to the composer himself.
“The music has more color, more voices” in its orchestral incarnation, says Robinson, who will celebrate the album’s release with a solo-piano performance Wednesday evening at SPACE in Evanston.
“It’s more than just a piano. Piano is beautiful alone, but my ears are more appreciative” of the music on the recording (it’s available at www.reginaldrrobinson.com).
“I listen to it almost every day now, just taking it all in,” adds Robinson, who hopes eventually to write such orchestrations himself. “It gives me more insight into how I want my music to sound in the future. … I’m hearing new ideas, new possibilities.”
Indeed, the album — recorded during a concert last March in Eastern Michigan University’s Pease Auditorium — illuminates turns of phrase and details of voicing only hinted at in their original piano form. Though nothing quite matches the sound of Robinson playing his compositions alone at the piano, the album shows how much potential these scores hold.