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The Shellwood Series

PETER DICKINSON shares his enthusiasm for a new record label based on historical popular music

CD Review

Shellwood Productions was set up by Mike Lorenzini in January 1997 and since then some dozen CDs have appeared. Shellwood has its own music room and recording studio and its primary focus has been as headquarters of the Billy Mayerl Society. 'Billy who?' Americans are likely to ask, with their assumption that everything of any significance in popular music between Gilbert and Sullivan and the Beatles would inevitably come from their side of the Atlantic. Perhaps one can explain patiently that the London-based composer-pianist-educator and celebrity, Billy Mayerl (1902-59) was probably the most remarkable pianist in the novelty piano idiom which succeeded ragtime. This style was epitomised by Zez Confrey's 'Kitten on the Keys' (1920) but Mayerl took it further in his own way and added an English dimension of his own. Not an improvising player, he occupied a unique territory between classical music and jazz. Everybody always asked him to play his most famous piece, Marigold, so he got into the habit of playing it very fast as a kind of revenge. The current British record catalogue is full of Mayerl - fortunately many reissues of his stunning playing taken from 78s (with varying degrees of technical skill - some appalling) but also modern performances, where the ten CDs by Erik Parkin have made the major contribution.

But Shellwood is taking all this further so that the context in which Mayerl operated can now be experienced much more fully. There were plenty of fine players and composers so that 1920s and 30s entertainment music is no more to be sneered at than Scott Joplin's classic ragtime. And the best British dance bands between the wars used some of the finest musical talent of the day, offering a training ground for countless conductors and performers who went on to careers in more serious fields later.

The first Shellwood release, Rediscoveries Vol.1, features Alex Hassan, a remarkable American collector and pianist who is the first to admit the high standard of the British contribution in the novelty field. Mayerl made over 100 transcriptions of popular songs of the day in his own style, which he taught through the Billy Mayerl School of Music, which had branches throughout England and in several countries abroad. Hassan plays some of these and he also includes some of his own arrangements of Mayerl's songs, many well-known in their day but not since. Hassan also chose his first British release as the occasion to relaunch the work of Lothar Perl (1911-75). He was born in Gemany but, like Kurt Weill, left for the USA during Hitler's persecutions. The fourteen pieces here, many republished in an album from Schott & Co., show a distinctive talent and, as with the other offerings, Hassan plays with infectious rhythm, beautifully dry textures, and overall a brilliant flair for recreating this syncopated idiom. Try 'Zebra Stripes' (track 9) for catchy Perl and peppy Hassan. His Rediscoveries Vol.2 unveils three pieces by Billy Goldwyn, another obscure German practitioner (originally Wilhelm Goergel); contains Hassan's own Fantasy on tunes by Burton Lane (1912-97); a hilarious medley of Ivor Novello tunes in Hassan's own style; and a grandiose period transcription of 'These foolish things' by Arthur Sandford.

Shellwood's second release, Razor Blades, features the South African-trained Erles Jones. He plays some Mayerl pieces and some of the few composed by Raie da Costa, subject of a later Shellwood CD. His approach, invariably skilled and fluent, verges on cocktail but is invariably stylish. Erles's performance 'Jack-in-the-Box' (track 4) is not far short of the master himself, which is saying something, and like him there is not much variation in dynamic level.

Two of Erik Parkin's later CDs are on Shellwood - Robots and Postman's Knock. The first contains all six of Mayerl's earliest virtuoso studies, the Pianolettes. Parkin has caught most of Mayerl's styles perfectly - the delightful 'Look Lively' (track 1) shows this at once. In particular he has been responsible for rehabilitating the transcriptions which he delivers in an immaculate, relaxed 1930s manner. Here he includes two of the four picturesque sets of pieces called 'In my Garden' - with their charming melodic qualities these are ideal pieces for beginning piano students but sadly unknown and out of print. 'Cherry Blossom' (track 18) is typical in its fresh lyricism.

Copyright © Peter Dickinson, September 4th 1999

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