Reginald Robinson at First Unitarian Church


Some audience gasped as the ragtime pianist Reginald R. Robinson made an announcement at the beginning of his concert Saturday, March 12, at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago: This would be one of his last concerts, he said. “I’m going to retire from public performance next year,” said Robinson, a winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” who may be the most prominent ragtime composer and performer today.

Robinson offered a little more explanation about his future plans during a question-and-answer session with the audience after the concert. “I’m moving to another stage of my life,” he said. “It’s an extension of what I’ve been doing. … I love playing for audiences, but I realized I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”

He said he plans to embark on a new artistic project, but he declined to say exactly what it will be. “I’m not going to say what it is,” he said. “I don’t want to jinx it. … It’s not a bad thing. It’ll be good. In fact, it’ll be great.”

So, it sounds like we’ll be hearing more from Robinson, but we may be running out of chances to see the sort of performance he gave on Saturday as part of the Chi-Town Jazz Festival.

He began with two of the most famous pieces by the composer known as the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin: “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag.” He noted that he likes to play “The Entertainer” at a quick tempo, unlike the more stately style some pianists prefer. “People were dancing to it,” he said. “You have to swing it.”

Robinson then played several of his own compositions, telling the audience a bit of the story behind each piece. His playing stumbled in one passage of his 2013 composition, “Doing the Sugar Heel,” after he’d warned the audience that he didn’t have the sheet music for it and might have trouble remembering it all. He quickly recovered, and his playing was close to flawless in the hour that followed, with his fingers dancing across the piano keys in intricate patterns. The rhythms were often rollicking, and the melodies were lyrical, with beautiful touches of yearning.

SET LIST: The Entertainer (Joplin) / Maple Leaf Rag (Joplin) / Doing the Sugar Heel / Eternal Love of Ankhesenpaaton & Tutankhaton / So Deeply / Mr. Murphy’s Blues / Esperanza / Monkey Business / Swampy Lee / Footloose

Read last week’s profile of Robinson by Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune.

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Robinson’s ragtime meets Sinfonietta

Reginald R. Robinson is a brilliant pianist and composer, in a genre that he seems to have almost entirely to himself these days: ragtime. The best way to catch up on this Chicago musician’s work is to buy his compilation Reflections — two CDs and one DVD — from his website, You’ll get the discs directly from Robinson himself, with an autograph. Robinson takes the style of ragtime composers who were popular at the turn of the 20th century, most notably Scott Joplin, and devises his own ingenious songs evoking that era.

Last week, Robinson performed with the Chicago Sinfonietta performed in concerts at Chicago Symphony Center (or Orchestra Hall, if you will) and Dominican University. I saw the performance Jan. 17 at Orchestra Hall, and it was quite a joy to see and hear Robinson’s ragtime syncopations mixing with a full orchestra in the piece titled Concerto for a Genius — featuring four of Robinson’s songs arranged for orchestra by Orbert Davis. As a hybrid of classical music and a form of “popular music” (although how “popular” really is ragtime?), it was reminiscent of the jazzy classical works of George Gershwin. Here’s a video of a performance of the concerto’s first part, “Mr. Murphy’s Blues,” in 2008 at the Auditorium Theatre:

If anything, I would’ve liked to hear Robinson’s piano more prominent in the arrangement. After the concerto, Robinson performed a mid-concert encore, playing a rollicking solo piece on the piano. His virtuosity in this little piece was astounding.

The concert by Robinson and Davis was the highlight of the concert’s first half, but it was aptly followed by a lovely performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a concert version of his opera/musical, featuring passionate and impressive singing by Lisa Daltirus, Chauncey Packer and Donnie Ray Albert, plus the massed voices of the Chicago Community Choir. It felt like a classical concert melded with a gospel-song revival session. The concert was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and so it seemed fitting that it concluded with Chicago Sinfonietta Music Director Paul Freeman leading the singers, musicians and audience in a stirring rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

(Photo courtesy of Reginald R. Robinson’s website.)