The Sting: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Who doesn't know "The Entertainer"? If you don't, then you haven't been doing your musical homework. The theme of the great twenties crime caper The Sting is one of the best-known songs in the amazing repertoire of pre-jazz composer Scott Joplin. This soundtrack, my first jazz-oriented record as a child, began my life-long love affair with jazz and ragtime music.
Arguments over Joplin's music have been somewhat negative over the years. Many have stated that the pieces in his catalogue are repetitious in nature, but his influence on the development of jazz was huge. Joplin's clever use of syncopation alone makes his stance as one of the greatest American composers in history. His style and ideas led to the birth of jazz, as evidenced by the way it worked its way through early greats such as Jellyroll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Sidney Bechet, to name a few. In the more-than-capable hands of the great contemporary composer Marvin Hamlisch, the soundtrack brought a whole new world to a forgotten music that is an essential cornerstone to all American music.
Although ragtime seems to have become nothing more than a footnote in the history of jazz, it played just as important a role in the development of jazz as blues. Drawing strongly from European classical music and marches, the highly syncopated structure it incorporated gave jazz an essential building block. The stride style is as close to ragtime as jazz gets. Stride gave ragtime the improvised structure and style of jazz while keeping its ragtime foundation. Many jazz greats would carry on Joplin's flame, most notably Eubie Blake and James P. Johnson, but ragtime lost its zing when jazz became the more popular music. Sixty years after its initial breakthrough had come and gone, this 1973 soundtrack of The Sting was a welcome change in a world preoccupied with fusion.
What makes this soundtrack work is Hamlisch's arrangements and orchestrations of Joplin's work. This disc serves in many ways as an introduction Joplin and the ragtime era. Each piece which serves a notable role in the film also plays out well on the record. Hamlisch recruited a great orchestra in order to make the music feel genuine and alive. Ragtime itself was a piano based music that was arranged for orchestras, but most sheet music and early recordings are primarily for a solo piano. Although it lacks somewhat in purity - Hamlisch has given himself co-credit for writing the tracks - the record still makes a great starting point for jumping into early jazz piano.
Eubie Blake - 86 Years of Eubie Blake (Columbia 1968)
James P. Johnson - Harlem Stride Piano (1921-1929 Re-issued by Epm Musique 1996)
Joshua Rifkin - Piano Rags by Scott Joplin Vol. 1 (Nonesuch 1970)