Thursday, November 24, 2016

Issler's Syncopation and The Slow Speed effect

Edward Issler, the first studio pianist there ever was, and the first one to syncopate behind a singer on a recording. 
It's amazing to fathom that fact, that Issler was the first to play syncopated rhythm behind a singer, and it just happened to be the first recording that the first black recording star made in his career. Issler would have hated to have been known as the first pianist to clearly play "ragged time" on a recording, but it's without a doubt true. It was bound to happen anyhow, as George W. Johnson grew up surrounded by music and melodies that were not the typical straight rhythm tunes that we all know of Victorian Music, it helped that Johnson grew up on a Virginia Plantation, and heard who knows what. Clearly Johnson had the typical sense of "swung" rhythm that many blacks were very familiar with from the days of the early minstrel shows. Issler luckily was gifted with the relatively rare perfect sense of time and pitch. His rhythm was metronomic, rare for the era in which he was schooled musically, and proved an advantage later when making records with his orchestra, as well as learning new rhythmic styles for singers. After going through the few recordings of Issler's where he plays this "ragged" time, is seems likely that learned how to play this way from hearing Johnson's syncopated whistling, since the type of syncopation he played later after recording with him in 1891 is the same rhythm and type. Issler was probably not well-acquainted with the new style of music that was emerging that was being played in minstrel shows and vaudeville functions, but certainly would have been after recording with Johnson in 1891. It is Johnson's recording of "The Whistling Coon" that is the oldest example of a recording of what "rag-time" would have sounded like many years before 1897. Here's the recording:
Without a doubt, this recording gets across the point of syncopated rhythm very well, on Johnson's and Issler's part. Johnson is whistling all sorts of syncopated rhythms, and Issler tags along and plays some occasional sections with the same, but different types of syncopation. 
In fact, it seems that Johnson's syncopation at about 56 seconds in is the exact type that Issler played on later recordings by his orchestra. A similar type that Issler later used is also Johnson's at 1:56. The first type at 56 seconds in is exactly the same type as that on the perplexing c.1896 recording of "Dixie" by Issler's orchestra(announced by Len Spencer). The syncopation is just after 1:20 seconds in. How that's the strangest thing! It is not the earliest example, but clearly Issler learned how to(kind of) do that from someone, and it is likely that working with George W. Johnson informally taught him how to play that way. It is clear now that Issler was able to play syncopated music, but of course, not in the most natural or loose manner. Since we know that he's on that infamous recording of "Uncle Jefferson" by Billy Golden, there's another good example of what Issler was capable of in terms of improvising. It's clearly syncopated, and a little bit more so than the other examples here, but it's certainly Issler, and it helps that the other recordings have the same syncopation and reasonably set dates to them. That record of "Dixie" is likely from 1896 more than any other year for many logistical reasons, such as the fact that Len Spencer is the announcer, the syncopation is there, and that the company that made the record(The U.S. Phonograph Company) had completely dissolved by May of 1897, and Spencer had left them in January of that year, so there's really no way that the recording is from very early 1897. That makes it one of the few examples of Ragged time on recordings from pre-1897. In that category, I know of about five recordings so far. Hoping to find more out there! 

Now to transition from this matter into a subject that continues to puzzle record collectors all over. When you play recordings from this era at much slower speeds, you can really hear the high and impressive quality of the recordings, from things as slight as single bass notes in the piano accompaniment to specific syllables that singers utter. It's a very strange phenomenon really, and in fact, some of these recordings seem to be made louder when played slower. I tried this yesterday with a few favourite recordings of the collection I have, and all of these aspects came through all the same, and the recordings sounded better overall. Tried playing a few Victors slow, and they sounded so much better, then tried it on some of my one-sided records, and the result was stunning. The recording of "Big Indian Chief" I have by Myers is one that sounded just that way after playing it much slower. 
Myers' actual range had been a debated matter between Ryan Wishner and I recently, and this experiment proves that what we had thought previously was not true. Ryan had assumed that the recording of "Alice Where Art Thou" we slowed down was slowed down too much, but in fact, it is at exactly the right speed. Myers was a low baritone for the most part, though his range was very versatile and could go far into the bass and into the tenor range. The original transfer of "Alice Where Art Thou" is very quick and just sounds as so even without any background information or prior knowledge of the singer or pianist. Just to get the comparison across clearly, here's the original transfer. Now listen to the newer slowed down transfer. One thing I just noticed while listening to the record while writing this is that Hylands hits a very deep single bass note at 1:04, and I didn't notice it before, only because it's one of those notes that reproducer just barely caught, just like a few notes in the whistling chorus of this 1901 Climax record. In fact, I have come to notice that Climax records did that often, only catch the tone of the rattling piano string, not the note in its entirety. Another example is another that we have recently slowed down from the original transfer. 
Here's the original transfer of Collins' "When Mr. Shakespeare Comes to Town" from 1901, now here's the newly slowed down transfer of the same.
Climax records had great sound quality(though they weren't as good as Zon-O-phones from the same era). The final octave that is played in the very last chord of the piano is caught by the diaphragm in exactly the same way as the other Climaxes exhibited here. The very low C is just barely caught, and now that the recording is played slower, this can be heard much better, and about as much it can be, since it's a Climax. 

The final recording to exhibit in furthering the astonishing effects of playing records slower is one of the very few recordings that Fred Bacon made. 
That's him in the early 20's. 
His recordings are highly valued to banjoists all over, since his banjos were among the best made in the 1920's, and they are regarded highly in jazz bands. It helps that his masterful skill transferred from his playing to his making of banjos as well. His playing style was technically better than Ossman's or Ruby Brooks, and it was smoother, as well as sweeter toned. His Victor recording of "West Lawn Polka" is no exception to his mastery, and it's a little funny that the banjoist who arranged it is in this picture here:
But it's not who you might be thinking it is. 
it's the banjoist on the right this time! 
Tommy Glynn. 
Here's the original transfer we all know of Bacon's "West Lawn Polka", now here's my copy slowed down to perfection.
Now that it's slower, the actual tone of the string plucking can be heard, and it brings out the harp-like effect that few banjo recordings from the acoustic era got. It's really how the banjo was intended to sound on these recordings, and it helps that Bacon was an exceptional banjoist, and, in my opinion, the best of these studio stars, and this is only from hearing three recordings of his playing. When three recordings alone get that point across, you know he was a truly gifted musician. The slowed down transfer really exhibits the sweet and dark tone that Bacon got on banjo, and the fact that his playing was the smoothest of the early studio banjoists. 

It must be noted that the pianist on this record is Fred Bachmann, though unfortunately, there's not really anything to distinguish his playing, but he's listed as the pianist in the ledgers, so there's no pianist debate here.

Before I finish the post, I just want to say that if you own a copy of "The battle of Manila" by the Columbia orchestra, I mean the brown wax from 1898, not any later remakes of it, Fred Hylands can be heard toward the beginning yelling in a kind of delirious and slurred way:


I know it's Hylands because I went back and listened to the two other records where Hylands is assumed to be speaking, and what do ya know! It's the same voice! 
Just to get an idea of it, here are the two recordings I used to support the theory:
Harry Spencer's "Side Show Shouter" from 1898
(Hylands is also on organ)
"The Jolly Coppersmith" by the Columbia orchestra from 1898
(Hylands is heard humming or singing(?) the tune at the trio)
just something to keep in mind, as I hadn't noticed it until I listened to a copy of "The Battle of Manila" this evening, and heard that familiar haunting and railroad brute-sounding voice.

Hope you enjoyed this! 

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