Bad Haircut, Good Ragtime

Brun Campbell Takes Scott Joplin’s Lessons to the Wild Bunch

The pianist enters like a moose on "Essay in Ragtime." Had Brun encountered any tuned pianos in his Midwestern travels, his left hand would have undone them. The force is so startling that you may not notice the modest embellishments or blues strain inserted at the trio. Campbell likes to combine two formats—the traditional 16-bar (or 8 + 8) ragtime strain and the 12-bar blues—and sometimes he doesn't seem to know which way he's headed until he gets there. Whenever he opts for the blues, it's either a variation on "Frankie and Johnny" or "Frankie and Johnny." For the rag of that name, he begins with blues choruses, switches to a 16-bar B strain, and then alternates the two, rushing the blues sections. "Lulu White" reverses the process, beginning with a 16-bar strain, played twice, followed by an F&J variation, then alternating them. On the second take of "Frankie and Johnny," he gets lost in the third chorus, as the left hand goes one way and the right another until he settles on the blues; he cuts the last chorus short by about seven beats.

That may sound like a mistake, but with Campbell you can't be sure. On "Campbell Cakewalk," which he seems to be making up on the spot, he begins with a 28-bar strain: 8 + 12—though the 12 is not a blues— + 8. The B strain (touch of "Who's Sorry Now?") is 16 and so is the C (touch of "Twelfth Street Rag"). About seven bars into the D strain, he suddenly turns the rhythm around, gaining two beats (or losing six) in the process and continuing with the new rhythm for another seven, thereby ending up with a strain of 14 and a half bars. If you think that, too, must be a mistake, consider "Barber Shop Rag," which hints at "Twelfth Street Rag" and "Muskrat Ramble" before arriving at a C strain that loses two beats in the 10th bar, ending up with an episode of 15 and a half bars. It also sounds like a mistake, except there are two takes and it comes out that way every time.

Sometimes, as on "Ginger Snap Rag," he winds himself up into a state of near euphoria, but more often he gives sway to a blustery contrariness, as in three distinct takes of "Twelfth Street Rag," the first ending with a phrasing of the melody that unmistakably presages the theme from The Third Man, the second accentuating the counterpoint between melody and bassline, and the third additionally embellishing accents. For sheer asymmetrical pulsing jollity, nothing beats "Rendezvous," which begins with a five-bar intro, followed by blues choruses and a 16-bar strain that in its second and final incarnation winds up 17 and a half bars, as though he were about to extend the last eight into a blues but thought better of it.

A footnote’s footnote, but one worth savoring
photo: Courtesy Delmark Records
A footnote’s footnote, but one worth savoring

On the B strain of "Rendezvous," Campbell flashes a treble gliss, recalling a segment from "Lily Rag," the best-known rag by Charles Thompson, who Campbell says on his album was "the best of all of 'em." Recordings culled from two parties Thompson played shortly before his death in 1964 were released last year as Neglected Professor, one of Delmark's first Euphonic releases. If Campbell's life was transformed by Joplin, Thompson's was turned upside down by James P. Johnson, the Broadway composer and piano god whom he had met between 1912 and 1917, when Johnson was first getting started. The encounter encouraged Thompson to expand the ragtime idiom to include a wider range of rhythmic attacks, including boogie-woogie and stride. He recorded little and few people heard him outside of St. Louis, where he operated a club. Thompson lacked Johnson's inventiveness, virtuosity, and spirit, but he had enough technique to evolve his own intimidatingly flashy style. Except for a couple of ponderous standards ("How Deep Is the Ocean," "Tennessee Waltz"), the Delmark disc is an impressive showcase for a pianist who replaces Campbell's brute force with razzle-dazzle syncopations and flourishes—he employs Johnson's Charleston beat on "Dicty's on 7th Avenue." Thompson, who became legendary for besting Tom Turpin in a much celebrated contest, could play and write rings around Campbell ("Lily Rag" is a peach). But he was also more conventional and there are passages when his technique can't hide the windup aspect of a mechanical music. Through Thompson's polish and Campbell's primitivism, however, we can experience part of the foundation from which jazz and swing arose, and credit the rowdy world of card sharps and wild women who paid the bills.

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