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MMD > Archives > August 1997 > 1997.08.16 > 05Prev  Next

Negative Reviews of Piano Performances
By Dan Wilson

Jim Edwards said in respect of his critical "crit" of the Nimbus
Duo-Art CDs:

> Many American magazines dodge publishing negative reviews, and this
> is why not much was done with the series in the American press.

For me this is an extraordinary coincidence, because I've just had a
review of mine refused by the Friends of the Pianola Institute (FPIN)
newsletter for pre-zactly this reason.

The review was of a new CD by the South African "novelty" pianist Erles
Jones, who plays, give or take a punch hole or two and some new composi-
tions, exactly in the style of the 1920s reproducing dance roll.  He's
really great to listen to and the CD is just like a 62-minute Dinner
Roll.  So very apt for a review in the FPIN.

Unfortunately, while I said this CD was ace for casual listening, if
I was making rolls from it there'd have to be some tough work at the
computer keyboard (always supposing one could do that -- John Farrell
plus coding dynamics).  I was not really all that critical; here's a

 "A lot of the tracks are swing standards Edgar Fairchild and Adam
  Carroll would have been familiar with in 1929, played in
  scintillating style and well up to their standard.  There are
  three tracks that I suspect have been in Erles's repertoire long
  enough to have received plenty of polishing, "Our Love Is Here
  To Stay", a Jerome Kern medley "A Fine Romance/Dearly Beloved"
  and an "Annie" medley I would let straight through for immediate
  release in the budget roll series -- Erles keeps everything very
  tight and two to four minutes is the norm for each.

 "But after that, things get problematical.  EJ never offends the
  listener of even 1921 with his harmonies.  There's absolutely
  nothing to tickle the 1990s palate harmonically here or make the
  unsuspecting listener laugh out loud at a key-change transition.
  While he can swing furiously on the mid-tempo numbers, his faster
  pieces sound forced and would have to have some air let into them
  on the editing computer, and maybe even some small corrections.
  And while his ornamentation articulation is superb, he absolutely
  can't give ballads any distinction.  They seem flaccid and halfway
  to banal.

 "What would the Duo-Art quick fix for this be, I wonder ?
  Probably, raise the theme levels a bit, "themodise" chosen
  accompaniment notes and drop everything else two or three levels.
  I will say, though, the way EJ hits the keyboard (a big Steinway,
  I'd guess) on his accents is perfect for Duo-Art -- the emphasised
  note a "row" or two ahead of the others.

 "The really big disappointment on the record (especially when we
  learn that it is issued from Shellwood, the residence of the Hon
  Sec of the Billy Mayerl Society in Thames Ditton) is five Billy
  Mayerl numbers, "Sleepy Piano" and "Jack-in-the-Box" from the 1925
  Piano Exaggerations and then the Three Miniatures in Syncopation,
  "Cobweb", "Muffin Man" and "Clockwork".  Someone who knew nothing
  of Mayerl wouldn't quibble at his treatment of these, but in
  aficionado terms they're far too heavily sweated over.

 "The essence of Mayerl is to toss off what are slight-sounding but
  transcendentally difficult numbers as though no effort has been
  involved.  Mayerl is the ultimate test of the novelty pianist.  For
  a piano roll that's going to represent the studio for another 120
  years, I'd want Mayerl done like a meringue -- right or not at all.
  EJ certainly has the technique at hand, but I think if he were put
  through Mayerl boot camp for a year, including some harmonic
  tuition, it would transform his whole outlook on music of this sort
  and we'd be looking at a new star of swing piano."

End of quote.  If you're interested, the CD is called "Razor Blades --
Tricks & Treats with Erles Jones at the Piano" -- Shellwood SWCD2.

However, it turned out that Erles is a personal friend of the Pianola
Institute supremos Rex Lawson and Denis Hall, and they had intended that
any mention in the newsletter should be short and positive.

From my point of view the editor Jeanette Koch can do what she likes;
my piece is probably far too long anyway.  But I must admit that, if
I was a friend of Erles Jones, I would regard constructive criticism as
much better for his career than unadulterated praise.

The proof is in the pudding.  The less-than-wild reviews of the Nimbus
CDs in the British musical press, which tended in (I suppose reasonable)
ignorance to doubt the worth of the Duo-Art system, were followed by a
reception thrown by Denis Hall for some of the critics, who is well known
to some of them as a vintage 78 expert.   Sample rolls from the CD series
were compared on his magnificent two Duo-Art grands with the CD itself on
his equally superb hi-fi.

We don't know what has happened at Nimbus, but the Duo-Art issues this
year have been noticeably better.  Let the process continue !

Dan Wilson

 [ Editor's note:
 [ Let the reviews continue, too.  I'd really like to publish a
 [ review contrasting the Nimbus CDs with Denis Hall's Duo-Art pianos.
 [ To equalize the room sounds perhaps it should be a "dry" recording
 [ of Denis's piano, with reverb added to match the Nimbus record.
 [ The best critique is written by one who knows well the music _and_
 [ the legacy of performances.
 [ -- Robbie

Key Words in Subject:  Negative, Performances, Piano, Reviews

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