Nick’s Olly Oakley Record Review of the Month

Every month a review of an Olly Oakley recording which readers can download in MP3 format.

Click here to download the sheet music for Chinese Patrol as a gif file

September 2003 CHINESE PATROL

Duet with Alfred Davis Cammeyer

Recording matrix number: Ak-17458e

Recording date: February 5th, 1914

Label: Zonophone X-46314, Zonophone Twin 1340

The six waxes cut by Olly Oakley and Alfred Cammeyer during this session comprise one of the single most important recording sessions in finger-style banjo history. The combination of these two players, unquestionably the leading zither-banjoists of the day, was so successful that we can only lament that this was to be their only collaborative recording venture.

Let us consider for a moment the players. Cammeyer was, or at least claimed to be the inventor of the zither-banjo and had brought the instrument with him to England in 1888. He had developed extensive connections in London’s "High Society", playing at intimate soirées for well-known celebrities and musicians including Prince Edward and Sir Arthur Sullivan. On Sullivan’s advice Cammeyer had largely abandoned arranging popular classics for the banjo and instead had begun to write his own inimical music with its harmonic sophistication and refined phrasing. His playing too was characterised by great refinement and control of touch.

Oakley had had lessons off Cammeyer (Joe McNaghten knew Cammeyer well in the great man’s latter years and told me of the occasion when he had asked Cammeyer about Oakley. "Well, I taught the boy a few things" was Cam’s laconic reply. Oakley had gone on to become the "peoples banjoist", giving recitals to packed houses up and down the country. His concept of zither-banjo playing was far from that of its inventor and his recording repertoire consisted mostly of banjo compositions with simple catchy tunes, which he executed according to his mood. This was usually pretty jolly and lively, or in classical terms, sanguine. On occasions we might even describe him by another of the four temperaments: choleric. His attack was unparalleled and his technical ability awesome although often unpolished.

Were it not for the evidence of these duets recordings themselves the idea of combining such disparate artistic personalities might have been likened to the mixing of chalk with cheese or some other suitable analogy. In the event the partnership seemed only to bring out the best in the two players, each inspiring the other to surpass himself. Oakley injects life into the performances and Cammeyer responds. At the same time Oakley’s respect and admiration for his former teacher ensured that he sorted out all technical issues beforehand. As mentioned in last month’s review Cammeyer issued Oakley with a Cammeyer Vibrante zither-banjo for this recording session. Compared to Oakley’s usual Windsor hollow-neck instrument the Vibrante has a softer, more sustaining tone. Oakley could not have played many of his own compositions at his preferred fast tempos on such a resonant instrument. However, these Cammeyer compositions were designed for performance on Cammeyer banjos. Oakley’s significant achievement here was in adapting his unique attack to the resonant Vibrante, attaining clarity and tone at a very fast tempo. Indeed, a metronome set to keep up with this performance will swing at 152 crotchets to the minute.

Of particular technical interest is how Oakley (who plays 1st banjo) negotiates the semiquaver figure which appears in the second section on the notes CDEDCDE. According to Joe Morley’s method, the C notes should be played with the right hand thumb, the D notes plucked by the first finger and the notes on E again using the thumb. Morley played a gut strung open-backed banjo. The zither-banjo has steel 1st and 2nd strings and the tones achieved by plucking these with the thumb pad and the fingernail are quite different from one another. In Cammeyer’s book "Care of the Hands" the procedure he recommends is for the second string to be plucked using either the right hand thumb or first finger. At the same time he forbids the thumb to play on the 1st string except for the final note of fast triplet figures. It is not completely obvious how Cammeyer himself would have played the semiquaver figure here. Would he have played the 2nd string notes on C with his right hand thumb or his first finger? Oakley did not favour the thumb for scale work even on the 2nd string, preferring instead to alternate his first and second fingers. Oakley’s solution here was therefore typical of his playing in general: he plays the notes of C and E with his first finger and the intervening D notes with his second finger. The result, with his well-cultivated fingernails, is an evenness of tone not possible using any other right hand fingering. However, anyone attempting this method will know how difficult it is to execute cleanly at even a moderate tempo. To pull it off with consistent power and evenness at crotchet = 152 is breathtaking.

Cammeyer’s 2nd banjo accompaniment is no less remarkable. When repeating the above-mentioned second section Cammeyer takes his accompaniment chords up an octave. The syncopated effect is wonderfully rhythmic. Also the E minor bridge section contains two elements not present in the published second banjo part. The first of these is a glissando up and down between the notes D and A on the bass string, the second an oriental-sounding quaver ornamentation of the solo part, also in fifths.

Oakley recorded solo performances of Chinese Patrol on two other occasions. The earlier of these was on April 9th 1903 for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company when in fact two separate recordings were issued from the same session. These had matrix numbers of 3453b and 5294a with serial numbers of GC-6380 and 6420 respectively. I have not heard the latter of these two (which appeared on a 7" disc). In the former Oakley demonstrates a good understanding of the idiom without attaining total technical mastery. Towards the end there is an almighty clang as he bashes the fifth string instead of the intended bass string. The second recording session of this composition took place some time around June 1915. Here we find Oakley at his most careless. The tempo is not so much fast as hurried and the wonderful rhythm of the duet recording is entirely absent. Oakley also has difficulty in remembering the agreed order of section repeats. For completion’s sake the matrix number of this recording is 36104 while its various labels and serial numbers are as follows: Beka 1043, Jumbo 1306, Favorite 915, Coliseum 858 and Scala 780.


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