Kris Tokarski has been one of my favorite solo and ensemble pianists for some years now. It can’t be “many” years, because Kris is perhaps half my age, but my admiration is not limited by the length of our acquaintance. He listens, he creates melodies, he swings, he sounds like himself, and he has a deep appreciation for the past without being chained by narrow historical definitions.
He’s recorded in a variety of settings, but here I draw your attention to two CDs of ragtime pieces done with delicacy and individuality: the first, issued in 2016 on Solo Art, paired him with drummer-scholar Hal Smith and string bassist Cassidy Holden, pleased me and others immensely: read more about it here. KINKLETS from that disc:
The second disc by Kris and Hal, now joined by bassist Joshua Gouzy, issued on Big Al Records, is called RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO, and it’s a real pleasure. Hear a sample for yourself here (scroll down the page through the evidence of how well Kris plays with others and on his own).
The premise is a collection of rags that Jelly Roll Morton planned to record — or would have known and played. And it’s not a fanciful vision, as Hal Smith’s solid annotations show — in 1939, Morton discussed with Roy Carew his plans to play Joplin and others in his own style, because, as he told Carew, “he didn’t know of anyone more qualified to do it than himself,” and he envisioned recording thirty or forty rags. (Oh, had he lived for another decade!)
He didn’t live to accomplish this, but we have Tokarski, Gouzy, and Smith to make the fantasy real.
I am especially fond of projects that take a gently imaginative look at the past. Let those who feel drawn to such labors reproduce recordings: the results can be dazzling. It takes decades of skill to play BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and sound even remotely like the Hot Five. But even more entrancing to me is the notion of “What might have happened . . . .?” going back to my early immersion in Golden Era science fiction. An example that stays in my mind is a series of Stomp Off recordings devoted to the Johnny Dodds repertoire, with the brilliant Matthias Seuffert taking on the mantle. But the most memorable track on those discs was Porter’s YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, a pop tune from 1929 that Dodds might well have heard or even played — rendered convincingly and joyously in his idiom. (It really does something to me.)
That same playful vision applies to this disc. It merges, ever so gently, Jelly Roll Morton and an unhackneyed ragtime repertoire, mixing piano solos and piano trio. That in itself is a delightful combination, and I replayed this disc several times in a row when I first acquired a copy.
Kris plays beautifully, with a precise yet flexible approach to the instrument and the materials. He doesn’t undercut, satirize, or “modernize”; his approach is simultaneously loving and easy. It’s evident that he has heard and absorbed the lessons of James P. Johnson and Teddy Wilson — their particular balance of propulsion and relaxation — as well as being able to read the notes on the page. He doesn’t pretend to be Morton in the way that lesser musicians have done (with Bix, Louis, Monk, and others) — cramming in every possible Mortonism over and over. What he does is imagine a Mortonian approach, but he allows himself freedom to move idiomatically, with grace and beauty, within it. And he doesn’t, in the name of “authenticity,” make rags sound stiff because they were written before Joe Oliver and Little Louis took Chicago. He’s steady, but he’s steadily gliding. His approach to the rags is neither stuffy reverence nor near-hysterical display.
He’s in good company with Josh and Hal. Many string bassists working in this idiom confuse percussiveness with strength, and they hit the fretboard violently: making the bass a victim of misplaced enthusiasm. Not Joshua, who has power and melodic wisdom nicely combined: you can listen to his lines in the trio with the delight you’d take in a great horn soloist. Every note sings, and he’s clearly there with the pulse.
As for the drummer? To slightly alter a famous Teagarden line, “If Hal don’t get it, well, forget it right now,” which is to say that Hal’s playing on this disc is a beautifully subtle, completely “living” model of how to play ensemble drums: gracious yet encouraging, supportive. He doesn’t just play the beat: he creates a responsive tapestry of luxuriant sounds.
The CD is beautifully recorded by Tim Stambaugh of Word of Mouth Studios, and the repertoire is a treat — rags I’d never heard (THE WATERMELON TRUST by Harry C. Thompson, and ROLLER SKATERS RAG by Samuel Gompers) as well as compositions by Joplin, Lamb, Scott, Turpin, Matthews, and May Aufderheide. Nothing overfamiliar but all melodic and mobile.
Here’s another sample. Kris, Joshua, and Hal are the rhythm section of Hal’s Kid Ory “On the Levee” band, and here they play May Aufderheide’s DUSTY RAG at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2018:
Hear what I mean? They play with conviction but their seriousness is light-hearted. Volume Two is a disc that won’t grow tired or stale. Thank you, Kris, Josh, and Hal! And Jelly, of course.
May your happiness increase!