I don’t know what you were doing in 1991, but the young man pictured above — Canadian pianist / composer Max Keenlyside — was busy being born, which makes his remarkable talent even more remarkable. I had the good fortune and immense pleasure of meeting and hearing Max for the first time at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, just a few days ago, and you’ll hear why I am impressed. Here you can learn more about Max.
What struck me immediately about Max was his gracious balance of technique and taste. He can play with incredible dexterity and skill — as fast as you could want, never faltering — but he has something much rarer, which is the understanding that quiet music, sweet sounds usually reach far deeper into our souls than do pyrotechnics. So I bring Max to you as a subtle wooer, a creator of inviting worlds of sound — specifically, his performances of two “rhythm ballads.” That’s an archaic term, and I don’t know who coined it, but it comes from the Thirties, where musicians played a tender song and made sure to send the emotions to the listeners, but kept a danceable pulse going all the time.
A few words about the music. IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, is one of my favorite songs, and I wrote about it here. I invite you to read that post — skip my prose if you’re in a hurry — but listen to Cliff Edwards and Dick McDonough, performing not only the chorus but the verse. But for now, Max, gently proceeding through the song, with a few nods to T. Waller, honoring the melody with delight and amusement:
I’LL FOLLOW YOU, by Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert, might be known to piano scholars and Commodore Records devotees through the 1939 recording by Willie “the Lion” Smith, but I first fell in love with the song through Bing Crosby’s version when it was a new pop hit.
Here’s Max. What could be nicer than the affectionate words about his mother?
The artist Aubrey Beardsley is supposed to have told the young W.B. Yeats, “Beauty is so very difficult,” and we must imagine all the possible tones of voice those words could have been said in — but young Max already knows a great deal about making beauty alive and accessible to anyone with ears and emotions.
May your happiness increase!