ZEZ CONFREY: “Kitten on the Keys” = 28 Pieces – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour

by | Aug 22, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

ZEZ CONFREY: “Kitten on the Keys” = 28 Pieces – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour CD 147, 76:51 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:

Illinois-born Edward Elzear  “Zez” Confrey (1895-1971) enjoyed a rather eclectic career in music, having served as an arranger for piano-roll companies in the 1920s, and even forming a violin-piano duo with a violinist who later became a celebrity of a different order: Jack Benny. Confrey participated in the Aeolian Hall concert (12 February 1924) in which Paul Whiteman and His Palais Royal Orchestra featured a new piece called Rhapsody in Blue, some of whose jazz riffs can be detected in Confrey’s own selections, “Lullaby from Mars” and “My Pet,” the latter of which could be Eubie Blake. The Confrey sound takes its cue from ragtime (try “Greenwich Witch”) and stride rhythms, while honky-tonk and cabaret influences infiltrate the mix. Having auditioned this fine disc by Mordecai Shehori, I am tempted to liken Confrey to Leroy Anderson (esp. “The Waltzing Cat”), both of whom employed their originally classical impetus to popular forms, each in his idiosyncratic style. A piece like “Anticipation” waxes sentimental in pseudo-waltz tempo, intimate, schmaltzy, a kind of bluesy juke-box. “Tune for Mademoiselle” could have been penned by Cole Porter. Occasionally, Confrey directly parodies a classical piece like Mendelssohn’s Spring Song or Dvorak’s Humoresque (via Godowsky and Stephen Foster) in the service of tender humor. Even “Tap Dance for Chimes” might be construed as a play on arpeggiated piano pieces by Albeniz or Granados.  The “Blumenlied” (after Gustav Lange) resonates with the salon world until it accelerates into a choppy dance close to Debussy’s Golliwog.

Several of Confrey’s works qualify as “landscape” pieces, like “Mighty Lackawanna,” a shimmering nocturne not far from Faure and Debussy. “Sparkling Water” has all the feathery éclat of a Chopin or Anton Rubinstein etude. “Wistfulness” corresponds to your penchant for Thoreau or Watteau, with traces of MacDowell. For a more exotic sound, try “Valse Mirage,” a blend of Anitra’s Dance and Chopin with something contrapuntal from Nielsen. For a study in metric perplexity and passing dissonances, try “Grandfather’s Clock.” or “You Tell ‘Em, Ivories” both of which use subtle metric shifts or hemiola to keep our ears and nerves just slightly ajar. “Coaxing the Piano” presents a study in touch and dynamic stresses, akin to the Kaleidoskop of Josef Hofmann, only more bemused. Rubinstein’s Staccato Etude or perhaps Godowsky or Moszkowski informs the “Movie Ballet,” a tripping Viennese waltz that seems meant for Charlie Chaplin.

“Rhythm Venture” comes across as a seriously pungent jazz etude, even a “cool” study by Ferde Grofe. For a bit of Scott Joplin syncopation by way of Confrey, “Charleston Chuckles” suits us to a tee. “Nickel in the Slot” points to the nickelodeon of old, a player-piano on ragtime automatic whose mechanism seems to run down, a sort “serenade interrupted” from Debussy.  Debussy’s Serenade for the Doll appears in Confrey as “Rag Doll Dimples,” another accented stride piece for light hands. If Confrey can be said to invade Liszt’s digital space, it might be in the last series of pieces on the disc: “Champagne,” with its bubbly and elastic note values in rising chromatics; “Stumbling,” a setting of a song about pratfalls on the ice; and lastly, “Parade of the Jumping Beans” – a swaggering march that Chico Marx might have championed – typical of the wit and wisdom of Confrey’s sensibilities, a time of youthful innocence.

–Gary Lemco