- Composer: Zez Confrey
- Audio CD (3 Feb. 2003)
- Number of Discs: 1
- Label: Warner Classics
- ASIN: B00007KMNW
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 209,423 in CDs & Vinyl (See Top 100 in CDs & Vinyl)
Zez Confrey: Piano Rolls And Scores
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Audio CD, 3 Feb 2003
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"We all know and stand in awe of Confrey's unique gift for creating unusual novelty rags, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that his performances hit the same high standard, filled with zest, hitting juicy just-right tempos, executing the toughest stuff with ease, consistently supplying everything you could ask for and more" (The Ragtimer) The flashy, syncopated compositions of Zez (Edward Elzear) Confrey (1895-1971) perfectly capture the spirit of the 1920s. His biggest hits were Kitten on the Keys and Stumbling, both of which appeared in the early 1920s. In the booklet note Jeff Taylor writes, “The pieces on this CD show the breadth of Confrey’s talent and include popular songs by both Confrey and other composers, parlor pieces in the vein of Edvard Grieg and Eastwood Lane, good-natured parodies of classical music and a variety of Confrey’s so-called novelty piano works. In this latter category, of which Kitten on the Keys is the most famous example, distinctive features of ragtime are wedded to a dazzling (but carefully planned) pianistic virtuosity and hints of impressionistic harmony. Perhaps equally important to this repertory is the medium for which much of it was arranged. Although player pianos and piano rolls were a fixture in American popular music through the early 1930s, they have received little musicological attention. Because of the inability of most player pianos to reproduce subtleties of touch and dynamics their sound can be tediously monochromatic. In addition, they have, with good reason, been viewed with suspicion as documentation of an artist's performing style. Yet these criticisms show the failure of both scholars and listeners to recognize in playing, composing and arranging for the instrument a unique and utterly American art form that must be approached on its own terms. As the recordings here show, Confrey was perhaps the greatest master of piano roll arrangement. His rolls were made ostensibly to sell sheet music, and tend to maintain a clear identity of a tune's melody and structure, but because he achieved such commercial success in the roll industry he was allowed by his employers to bring his idiom to unprecedented heights of imagination and detail. Still, though completely idiomatic to the piano, even when transcribed they cannot be accurately reproduced by a human performer. Not only do they incorporate techniques that are physically unplayable, but they rely on Confrey's brilliant marriage of the instrument's mechanistic properties with his own instinctive musicality. These recordings wed early 20th-century technology with the 21st-century innovations of the Yamaha Disklavier, and include several pieces that the pianist composed but did not arrange for the roll medium.” These pieces are hand played by the noted pianist and music historian Artis Wodehouse.
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I first became aware of this CD (realeased Feb 2003) when it was mentioned on the BBC R4 review programme "Front Row". It includes reproducing rolls of Confrey's own playing, 88-note standard rolls and hand-played performances all recorded and expressioned (in the case of the 88-note rolls) on a Yamaha Dislavier Pro, a standard acoustic 9-foot concert grand wired up to a computer which can capture all the information from the old rolls and more besides. Not one for player-piano purists perhaps but a fresh, clean sounding performance nevertheless which hopefully will draw attention to the importance of the original rolls to a much wider musical public. There are some excellent sleeve notes as well as photographs of the youthful Mr Confrey, who appears genial.
Was Confrey a great composer...probably not, but who cares when you hear such delights as his own composition "Relaxation", an exquisite jewel of a piece? His was a small, extremely well-crafted output, the reputation of which is greatly enhanced by this enjoyable CD.
Unfortunately you'll only hear them played like this here - most of them - because it's known that people who cut the rolls edited in extra lines to increase the dazzle - they'd edit in octave doublings and lines to bring out melodies, all of which went well beyond the capabilities of a human pianist but sound great. The melody that appears in the middle (between the hands, as it were) in Dizzy Fingers (track 1) illustrates this. Even the sheet music doesn't reveal exactly what Mr Confrey has done.
Doesn't matter about those "cheats" therefore, this is a tour de force of Zez Confrey covering a fair range of his output, a thoroughly enjoyable hour-plus, if you like the "piano novelty" style. The most lasting of his pieces included on the disc is "Kitten on the Keys". Occasionally Mr Confrey's sheet music surfaces in the "used" market, among which might appear his tutorial material - might have helped with composing but wouldn't have bestowed a budding pianist with the verve to play these works, cheat or not!
All good. 5 stars!
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For those new to Confrey, here's a brief description:
Edward Elzear Confrey (known to all as Zez) was a self-described composer of novelty piano music, his way of trying to describe music that was at once influenced by ragtime, early jazz, popular songs, and classical composers, particularly Debussy and MacDowell. His music rarely if ever aspires to emotional profundity, but its sheer joy, bounce, and tunefulness make it hard to put down once you've started, whether as listener or pianist. As an amateur pianist, I've been playing Zez Confrey's music for 20 years. The reactions I have gotten from people over the years have been consistently the same; "Wow! Who wrote that?", and "Are there recordings of this music I can buy?". Now, this disc gives me an easy answer to the second question.
This disc is Artis Wodehouse's fourth disc devoted to her amazing humanized piano rolls. The first two covered a good cross-section of George Gershwin's piano rolls, while a third was a collection of piano rolls by Jelly Roll Morton. This is easily her finest work since the first "Gershwin plays Gershwin" disc in 1993.
Zez Confrey, like his contemporaries George Gershwin and Jelly Roll Morton, left behind a well-rounded collection of acoustic gramophone recordings as well as paper piano rolls. The least sophisticated of these paper rolls merely captured the notes that the pianist played and nothing more. Once the roll was published and sold, it was the job of the consumer, operating his or her own reproducing piano, to mechanically add pedaling, rubato, and dynamics as he or she saw fit. However, the most sophisticated reproducing rolls captured not only the notes but the pedaling, rubato, and dynamics used by the pianist, often with uncanny accuracy. All paper rolls allowed the pianist the option of post-production editing, e.g., removing wrong notes, and in popular music such as this, adding dazzling "third hand" counterpoint effects that made the end result unplayable by a human pianist. Confrey was one of the best at this, and he uses this technique liberally throughout the rolls on this disc. (For those of you familiar with Confrey's "Kitten on the Keys" or "Dizzy Fingers" in their standard published versions, you're in for a treat once you hear Confrey's souped up three-handed versions presented here.) Still, even the best of these paper rolls played back on the best reproducing pianos could never be mistaken by an astute listener for a human being (two-handed or otherwise). There was always a discernible gap between playing produced in the human realm and that of the mechanical realm, that is until relatively recently. The explosion of digital technology has allowed such things as computerized reproducing pianos like the Yamaha Disklavier to become a readily available reality. Recordings made and played back on such pianos are virtually indistinguishable from live human performances. It wasn't long before people like Artis Wodehouse starting exploring ways to apply this technology to the old paper rolls, finally enabling listeners to experience what it might have been like to hear pianists like Gershwin, Morton, and Confrey recorded in the flesh, and in modern sound. By taking the information encoded on these old paper rolls and feeding it into a Yamaha Disklavier system, she has been able narrow the gap between human playing and mechanical playing to the point of near nonexistence. Through careful study of Confrey's actual playing from acoustic recordings, Wodehouse has softened the mechanical edges, painstakingly adding those qualities that distinguished Confrey's playing in the flesh, effectively making each roll indistinguishable from an actual human performance.
On the first Gershwin disc from 1993, several of the rolls she chose had been previously recorded in their original paper roll form. Having heard these original paper roll recordings, listening to Artis Wodehouse's humanized versions of these same rolls was like seeing an old film before and then after restoration. In short, it was a revelation.
This new Zez Confrey disc easily lives up to these high standards Wodehouse set for herself, indeed this disc may even set the bar higher. This time around, not only is Wodehouse working from two different types of paper rolls, she is actually playing some of the pieces herself, works that Confrey did not record, but that deserve a place on any disc of Confrey's music. The joyful bounce and rhythmic snap of her playing so perfectly matches Confrey's own playing that it becomes impossible to tell which tracks are hers and which are Confrey's. The result is an amazingly seamless and unified blend of musicianship, scholarship, technological know-how, with an astute understanding of the individual elements that made Confrey's playing unique. Whether as pianist or digital editor, with this CD, Wodehouse has done more for Confrey's music than has anyone before her. The results are well worth hearing.