How ragtime whiz Reginald Robinson got his groove back

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Chicago ragtime piano master Reginald Robinson is on a tear.

In recent months he has completed three new works, two of which he'll play Saturday night in a nearly ideal venue for his intimate art: Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple, in Oak Park.

One of the compositions, "Strutting Your Troubles Away," received its world premiere performance last December, when Robinson accompanied Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts. The piece illuminated Robinson's gift for re-imagining the historic art of ragtime, its melodic grace matched by its harmonic invention.

Not until Saturday night, however, will listeners know what Robinson has created with "Doing the Sugar Heel," which he'll unveil at Unity Temple. And a third and still-untitled Robinson creation, which he says is built on the habanera dance rhythm, is so new that he hasn't yet had time to learn to play it, meaning its world premiere will have to wait for another day.

All of which suggests a new burst of creativity from Robninson, who won his MacArthur Fellowship – or "genius" grant of $500,000– in 2004 (MacArthur funds are dispensed over the course of five years). Rarely has the overused term "genius" been applied more aptly than to Robinson, a mostly self-taught pianist-composer who more than anyone else has proven that there's still a great deal to be said within the grand old art of ragtime.

That Robinson should be writing so prolifically now comes as welcome news not only to his admirers but to the musician himself, for he experienced what he calls "a slump" starting at the end of 2009. It was in December of that year, near Christmas, when Robinson's father died. If you want to understand Robinson's feelings about his father, just listen to Robinson's composition "Mose," a warmly affectionate piece "Respectfully Written for My Father Mose Robinson," as the pianist notes on his "Man Out of Time" album.

Within a couple days of his father's death, Robinson's maternal grandfather died, as well.

The pianist acknowledges that he lost his footing.

"The slump came," says Robinson. "I was like: I don't want to play ragtime anymore. I want to stop doing this music."

Looking back on it, Robinson believes "I just needed time to get myself together and refocus what I wanted to do with my life. I was considering: Should I stick to music or go do something else? There was a lot going on, a lot happening at that time."

Including the expiration of the MacArthur grant, which gave Robinson its last installments the same year his father died. All at once, Robinson's life changed dramatically, and he needed to reassess.

"It took me awhile to come out of the slump," he says. "I was prepared for the grant to be over with. Like one of the MacArthur Fellows said when his grant ran out: 'I guess I'm not a genius anymore.'

"I was just going through a sad period. ... But then I realized: I never got into music for money. If it were for money, I never would have gone into music.

"I got into ragtime because I loved ragtime. I didn't have any money. I realized that was my joy. Why shouldn't I do it?"

So Robinson eventually returned to the musical idiom in which he has no real peer, but he also pushed into other sounds, as well. During the aforementioned collaboration with Muntu Dance Theatre, his original compositions ventured into calypso with "Carianne Wait for Me," Nat "King" Cole-inspired jazz with "Heaven Only Knows" and world music with "Highlife Til Dawn."

But it was Robinson's "Strutting Your Troubles Away" that towered over everything else and reaffirmed Robinson's ineffable wizardry in composing and performing ragtime.

For Saturday night's program, a benefit for the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, Robinson also will include early ragtime works by Scott Joplin, as a way of evoking the era of the innovative architect who designed Unity Temple.

"Frank Lloyd Wright was in that same time period as Scott Joplin, though of course he outlived Joplin," says Robinson of two colossal cultural figures born about a year apart (Wright in 1867 and Joplin in '68). But Joplin died in 1917, at age 48, and Wright in 1959, at age 89.

Each changed the art form he worked in, and though Robinson professes no particular expertise in Wright, he surely knows more about Joplin than most.

"I think he was the most expressive composer in ragtime," says Robinson. "That's not to take anything away from any of the other writers. ... I just don't know how (Joplin) learned to express himself that deeply. I guess it was just learning chords and studying music to a high degree.

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