Caprice Rag by James P. Johnson

By 1914, James P. Johnson had already begun to take composition and songwriting quite seriously. During this period, he composed four rags that would remain in his repertory and be recorded later: “Carolina Shout”, “Caprice Rag”, “Steeplechase Rag” and “Daintiness Rag”. All James P. Johnson’s rags from this period had the ragtime formal structure (AABBA), followed by a trio of varying lengths, all seasoned with introductions, interludes and bridges as in ragtime.

“Caprice Rag” was first recorded as a piano roll in May 1917 (Metro-Art 203176) and again in July 1917 (Perfection 87023). According to Scott E. Brown (James P. Johnson, A Case Of Mistaken Identity, published by Scarecrow Press and the Institute Of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, 1982), the Perfection piano roll is another example, alongside “Innovation” (Universal, Oct. 1917) and “Twilight Rag” (Metro-Art, Nov. 1917) of Johnson’s early and extensive use of sixteenth-note triplet figures, which was very rare in printed ragtime and came into common use as jazz developed. According to Brown, “The sweeping, ascending melodic line of the A section differs markedly from the somewhat reserved folk melodies of classic ragtime. (Such a line was later paraphrased by Fats Waller in his stride composition “Handful Of Keys”). There is also a hint of rhythmic phrasing which formed the basis of many later stride styles. In the repeat of the B strain, at measures 11 and 12, Johnson employed off-the-beat block chords in the right hand. They are not arpeggiated or embellished by pivot notes. Instead of merely dividing the beat with tied and untied syncopations, Johnson shifts rhythmic emphasis by playing around the beat maintained by the left hand.” The tune is played in F#, instead of in G as has been played many times later and even James P. himself did on some occasions, but the trio is played in a major third lower than that of the A and B strains.

Fascinating as it is, this Perfection piano roll version is burdened with the limitations of the physical medium. Piano rolls could not reflect the dynamics, the feel of tension and release, the unrelenting swing and the shear power of the performance.

The first phonograph recording was cut on February 28, 1923 for Columbia, alongside “Papa Blues”, “Railroad Blues” and “Glory Shout”. Neither of them was ever issued.

The definitive “Caprice Rag” performance on disc by James P. Johnson was recorded for Blue Note on December 15, 1943, and originally issued on a 12” 78 rpm disc, coupled with “Improvisation On Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” (BN 26). As Richard Cook notes, “the eleven choruses (…) are especially finished, close to a notated perfection – yet their syncopations and the personal touch which Johnson imbues belong to a later, jazz age.”

To my knowledge, the piano roll versions of “Caprice Rag” have not been issued on CD yet, unlike many other James P. rolls from these early years. Both the Metro-Art and the Perfection rolls are included in “James P. Johnson 1917, volume 2” (Biograph BLP 1009Q). The 1943 Blue Note version can be found in "The Complete Blue Note Sessions Of Edmond Hall/James P. Johnson/Sidney De Paris & Vic Dickenson" (Mosaic MD4-109).

For instant pleasure and visual enjoyment, check Dick Wellstood playing “Caprice Rag” on December 3, 1978 at Manassas, Virginia.

2 comentarios:

  1. I don't know if it's a commonly held opinion, but I think of James P. as the finest of the first generation of stride pianists, for invention, for rhythmic flexibility, for creative swinging. Fats was joyous; the Lion was idiosyncratic; Don Lambert, Cliff Jackson, and Tatum all had their own views of the style and how to expand its inherent limitations: but listen to James P. on IF DREAMS COME TRUE or as soloist and accompanist on the Blue Note Jazzmen for a perfectly realized embodiment of what stride is and could be. Thanks for the caprices, Agustin!

    Cheers, Michael Steinman

  2. He is so amazing at piano, i havent seen anyone playing like him before, its beautiful how he plays so fast!!!!!