The City in Rags

David Chesky: New-era ragtime for a city at a specific moment in time
David Chesky: New-era ragtime for a city at a specific moment in time



David Chesky

Chesky Records

“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer–I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise…”

So said George Gershwin in a 1931 interview with his biographer, Isaac Goldberg, in discussing the genesis of his monumental “Rhapsody in Blue.” David Chesky–upper west side New York resident, virtuoso pianist, gifted composer–also hears music in the very heart of the noise of the place he calls home. The latest and most impressive manifestation of that impulse is his delightful new album, The New York Rags. In 41-and-a-half dazzling minutes, Chesky introduces a new-fangled ragtime that both respects the traditional foundation constructed by Scott Joplin-Joseph Lamb-James Scott at the turn of the 20th Century and enlarged upon by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but also takes it a few steps beyond what latter-day revivalists such as Joshua Rifkin and others have brought to the style since the ‘70s. Bill Milkowski’s astute liner notes succinctly summarize the complexity of Chesky’s fresh take on ragtime: “Chesky’s series of 18 modern rags, inspired by life in the bustling and always intense metropolis that he has called home since 1974, seems to owe as much to Henry Cowell’s and Charles Ives’ use of dissonance, Elliott Carter’s atonalism, Colin Nancarrow’s experimental piano rolls and Cecil Taylor’s whirlwind free jazz as they do to Joplin’s ragtime classics.”

David Chesky, ‘Kids You’re Late for School,’ from The New York Rags

Cheskey has kind of, sort of been this way before: in 1990 he wrote a series of 16 New York-centric compositions in the style of Brazilian chorinhos and released them as The New York Chorinhos. True to the style, these chorinhos–bearing titles such as “Brooklyn Bridge,” “Sutton Place,” “Park Avenue,” “Manhattan,” “Columbus Avenue,” “Broadway,” etc.–are mostly bright, buoyant, energetic (and lengthy at times–“Times Square” clocks in at almost ten minutes, “The Boat Pond” is a bit more than seven minutes, “Madison Avenue” is nearly six minutes’ duration), although “Sutton Place” and “Madison Avenue,” to cite two examples, turn more reflective and soothing in tone and texture. He was aided in his efforts by the extraordinary Brazilian guitarist, Romero Lubambo, in what remains one of the crown jewels in Chesky’s remarkably diverse catalogue.

David Chesky, ‘Coney Island Rag,’ from The New York Rags

The New York Rags, by contrast, is a vibrant solo piano effort that begins with a hectic, you might even say anxiety-ridden 1:53 bit of stylistic potpourri titled “The New Yorker,” in which the spirits of Gershwin, Joplin, Ives and Carter all seem to coalesce (maybe “collide” is the better word), followed by the frantic “The Bernstein,” for 2:06, and we’re off to the races. Other than the delightful closing number, “The Coney Island Rag” (at 3:16 the album’s longest composition)–wherein Chesky captures the energy not of the neighborhood but of the ever buzzing amusement park with its fast rides, boisterous crowds and high energy ambience; a passage towards the end sounds like it could be music for a chase scene in a silent film–the New York of The New York Rags is Manhattan: “Times Square,” “Fourth Street,” “Third Avenue,” “Grand Central Morning,” “The Thanksgiving Day Parade” (for us Parade devotees this rapid outpouring of left-hand chording and right hand skittering across the keys–with quotes from “Turkey in the Straw” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” signaling this as a very American, not merely New York, event–feels more like the crowd’s rush to assemble for the parade and find prime viewing spots than the pace of the Parade itself, which is in fact rather leisurely, owing in part to frequent stoppages for TV commercials; what it doesn’t capture is the crowd’s increasing puzzlement as to the identities of the so-called “stars” featured on the floats, most of whose appearances are greeted with a collective, “Who is that?” Once was a time when to be on a float you had to have done something more important culturally than starring in a little-watched NBC TV series), “Penn Station,” and so on. Because these aren’t straight rags but rags for a new day, you get the variety of influences Milkowski cites in his liner notes, as well as a chance, in “The Manhattan Blues Variations Rag,” for a more contemplative moment amidst a smidgen of dissonance that is a staple (in greater or lesser volume) of Manhattan life for the borough’s full-time residents. Otherwise, “Penn Station,” for example, feels in its exhilarating rush like Chesky might have composed it at the site itself at the height of rush hour, when the station is full of commuters rushing off subways and hustling to New Jersey Transit trains, Long Island Railroad lines or Amtrak trains. You can imagine some listeners, especially millennials, being puzzled by “The J Walker Rag,” an intriguing blend of dissonance and stride with a bounce in its step–attributes that could be applied to the man for whom the song is presumably titled, one Mayor Jimmy Walker, who served from 1926 to 1932 before scandal forced him to resign (and retreat to Europe to avoid prosecution). Exactly why Chesky would inject Jimmy Walker (if indeed we’re talking about the same J Walker here) into an album presumably about modern-day New York City is a puzzlement, but maybe he’s honoring not Walker the mayor but Walker the head of Majestic Records, a fabled Manhattan-based record label–home to the likes of formidable jazz artists including Jimmie Lunceford and Bud Freeman, as well showman extraordinaire Louis Prima and operatic tenor Jan Peerce–that Walker headed in the ‘40s after returning to the States. On the other hand, maybe “The J Walker Rag” is Chesky’s musical version of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, a clever distraction from the album’s main plot, included precisely so we can mull over its greater meaning when it may not mean anything at all, other than being a scintillating detour off the main conceptual route.

David Chesky, ‘Penn Station,’ from The New York Rags

More than his The New York Chorinhos, The New York Rags is Chesky’s love letter to the place he loves, much as Gershwin’s was “Rhapsody in Blue” and the great arranger-composer Gordon Jenkins’s was Manhattan Tower. Like these two commanding works, The New York Rags is inseparable from the city that inspired it, most especially at this moment of the 21st Century. It’s intriguing to wonder what Chesky could come up with if he wrote an entire album of late-night Manhattan reflections, when the old town, even though it never sleeps, exhales for a few hours, and a person can take a piece of that quietude for himself. Even though he states in the liner notes how the rush hour subway inspires him–“being smacked in there and people saying, ‘Get the fuck out of my face!’ I mean, that’s New York to me”–it says here he has something to contribute to the city’s romantic musical literature as well. Celebrate The New York Rags as a compelling reimagining of ragtime for a new era (and at the same time for demonstrating the continuing allure of classic ragtime), enjoy the musical evocations of the hurly-burly of daily life in the borough, and hope the artist will one day turn his considerable compositional artistry inward, and capture something of what we know of Manhattan in the wee small hours. A new Manhattan Tower abides within David Chesky, I’m sure of it.

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