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On the Highwire

Cover Photo: David Ashander

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Catalog Number: CPS-8680
Audio Format: Digital CD
Playing Time: 34:34
Release Date: 2000

Track Listing & Audio Samples
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1. On the Highwire (5:25)
  2. Forgotten Ballrooms (4:49)
  3. Perdido Bay Moon Rag (5:25)
  4. Mobile Carnival Rag-Tango (3:24)
  co-written with Matthew Davidson
5. Voodoo Queen (4:19)
  6. Waterloo Rag (2:11)
7. Sunday Night, Manhattan (4:03)
  8. Empty Porches (4:11)
  9. Friday Night (3:16)
  10. Astor Place Rag-Waltz (3:58)
11. The Brooklyn Stop and Start (4:06)
  12. Old Streets (4:39)
  13. Business in Town (3:16)
  14. Evanescence (4:33)
  15. We Dances (3:06)
  16. Peacock Colors (3:34)



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Matthew Davidson



American Record Guide - May/June, 2001 - by French

The superb liner notes by both Alabaman Donald Ashwander (1929-94) and Matthew Davidson describe the music best: hymns, sacred harp music, southern black music, and popular music of the 30s and 40s… American poems using the simplest of open harmonies and trusting the melody to carry the day. And does Ashwander have an inventive voice of his own! And does Davidson have style!

‘On the Highwire’ is a mightily unsteady, wind-gusted, half-inebriated, swaggering strut. The tempo in ‘Forgotten Ballrooms’ is highly flexible but not self-indulgent. ‘Mobile Carnival’ and ‘Business in Town’ are perhaps the prime examples of Ashwander’s constant invention and cleverness. ‘Waterloo Rag’ and ‘Sunday Night Manhattan’, while offering refreshingly steady tempos for a change, are incredibly infectious with that quality only a master can create, the sense of improvisation despite the fact that it’s all written down. ‘Friday Night’ includes excellent contrary motion, both literally and harmonically. ‘We Danced’ – is it a waltz or a 2/4 statement? And in its reprise ‘Peacock Colors’ is hardly a repeat – it’s yet more development or variation, reconfirming Ashwander’s inventive ability to create the illusion of improvisation.

OK, I left a few out, not because they’re lesser but to avoid being repetitive with praise. The music’s superb. The engineering is excellent. And the performances have consummate style, though it takes Davidson a bit too far into the album to serve up some shading. A bit more of that plus variety in tone color would supply some relief from his forward presence. A minor quibble. By the way, the titles (they all come from the composer’s personal experiences) do get reflected in the music. And never heard of Capstone? Try HYPERLINK http://www.capstonerecords.org.


The Mississippi Rag - October, 2001 - by David Reffkin

The many rags and rag-related pieces written by Donald Ashwander are now appearing in folios and recordings, largely thanks to Judith Ashwander Moore, the composer's sister. When Ashwander died in 1994, his unreleased recording, "On the Highwire" existed only on some cassettes that were circulated, as the recording company had folded. Matthew Davidson, already a friend and admirer of the composer, decided to rerecord the material (with some additions and subtractions). The result is a set of pieces written by an untrained composer who had a gift for melody and mood-setting music, played by a performer whose musical instincts make the whole project a success.

Just about every piece is programmatic: an event or current circumstance found its way into a musical composition. This is about as subjective a way to write music as there is. I remember Donald Ashwander as a very sensitive guy who was dynamic in normal conversation, observant and opinionated.

The "rags" are not to be played (or heard) at all like classic rags. Most of the pieces are a cross between sentimental/bluesy ballads and "songs without words" and jaunty ragtime melodies. Playing them without the appropriate rubatos and inflections would be totally against the grain.

The better-known titles on this CD are "Friday Night" (famous for its use in the British dance production Elite Syncopations), "Sunday Night, Manhattan," and "Astor Place Rag-Waltz" (one of the few successful modern ragtime waltzes).

Some listeners might not like the quirkier pieces, augmented by short vocals. For example, for (Perdido Bay Moon Rag," Davidson includes the short song lyric in the middle. Singing is not the strong point in these performances, but it was exactly the kind of thing Ashwander did. One gets the impression of a saloon pianist who is minding his own business at the piano and suddenly erupts with an inspiration to improvise a song in the middle of a tune. Along the same vein, The Brooklyn Start and Stop" and "stop," that adds nothing to the piece unless the listener cares to make up a dance. I doubt anyone will be doing this, though it was done in live performance. By the way, there were no dance steps for this!

The really best performances for me are pieces like "Old Streets," where some good melodies are hinged together and the pianist makes especially effective musical sense of the sometimes roughly crafted score. "Business in Town" sounds very much like an instrumental development of his song "Chili Billy" (not on this CD). Another wonderful rendition is "Evanescence," a rag that reminds me of Billy Mayerl, Max Morath and Bill Bolcom wrapped up in one piece.

The liner notes for this recording should be held up as a model for similar projects. On seven standard-size CD pages, we have Davidson's introduction, Ashwander's original introduction and program notes for each piece, a postscript and a biography - plenty of information in readable black print on white paper (imagine that). And the eighth page shows a nice oval photograph of Ashwander. This is a welcome relief from the work of designers who think they're up for the Psychedelic Nanoprint Award.