Jelani Eddington Wurlitzer Recital – 29 February, Avondale, New Zealand

Numerous arrangements including
“The Boy Next Door”, “Tico Tico”,
“Pavane”, A medley from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s
“South Pacific”, Parish & Perkins’s “Stars Fell On Alabama”,
Rossini’s William Tell overture, Kern’s “I Won’t Dance”,
Londonderry Air, and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor

Jelani Eddington (Wurlitzer Organ)

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 29 February, 2004
Venue: Hollywood Theatre, Avondale, Auckland,
New Zealand

Jelani Eddington is one of the young talents gracing the world’s semi-stages; I say semi-stages because although a number of the great concert halls have an organ, very few have a Wurlitzer. In truth, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Wurlitzer is an instrument of a by-gone age, given a brief resurgence through Monty Python’s ’intermission’ scene in the classic 1970s’ TV programmes. In fact, this is not the case. A casual search of the Internet shows over 200,000 web pages devoted to the instrument. There are also over 100 societies worldwide, including a number in the UK, that promote this powerhouse of an instrument.

Auckland, New Zealand, for those interested, is the second largest city in the world: not by population, but by area. In the western suburb of Avondale there is a privately owned and managed picture-house called the Hollywood Theatre, home to the “mostly restored” Wurlitzer, Opus 1475. There has been a good deal of fund raising to restore this instrument to its former glory and attract the likes of Eddington from his Indiana home.

Eddington is something of a prodigy. He began piano lessons at the age of four and classical organ at eight, moving swiftly onto theatre organ under the direction of John Ferguson – a well-respected tutor. At the age of 13, and the youngest ever winner, Eddington won the American Theatre Organ Society’s ’Young Theatre Organist Competition’ – an international competition with competitors from the age of 13 to 21. Then in 2001, ATOS named him the 2001 Theatre Organist of the Year – again the youngest ever recipient of this award. Add to this his 15 recordings. This is one musician that you should take exceedingly seriously. Oh, and one other thing, Eddington also has a Doctorate Law degree from Yale Law School, allowing him to practise law in New York State.

With such a resume, you might expect Eddington to be unapproachable: but not so. He loves his audience, and they love him back. He has been making a habit of travelling ’down-under’ for a while now and jokes that it is to get away from the seven inches of snow back home. I don’t think he expected the cyclone that rocked New Zealand this weekend though! Despite the weather, the theatre was full of fans – not only of Eddington, but also of the Wurlitzer that rose out of its nesting place to the sound of Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing”. Sadly, there was not a programme available, but Eddington did a fine job announcing the order in such a manner as to infect the audience with his obvious enthusiasm for the music.

For me the faster pieces, such as Lou Bega’s “Tico Tico”, worked better on this instrument. Eddington has an amazing technique and the excitement felt as his fingers and feet snake up and down the instrument is lost when he moves into a more introspective mood. Many of the pieces played at this recital were ideally suited to show off the capabilities of the instrument. “Pavane” – whose? I don’t know, though it sounded like Gershwin – swung to the sounds of reeds, xylophone and an array of other percussion instruments.

Eddington explained how the first Wurlitzer organs attempted to try and replicate the sounds of an orchestra, and with that launched into the last piece before the interval: the Overture to Rossini’s William Tell. Ever since The Lone Ranger inflicted irreparable connotations to the overture’s final gallop it has been difficult to do too much damage to one of Rossini’s best-loved pieces. The Wurlitzer made an admirable stab at the forte passages, only to be let down by ill-tuned solo pipes in the quieter sections. Perhaps this is what is meant by “mostly restored”!

The second half opened to Jerome Kern’s “I Won’t Dance”, followed by an accompaniment to a silent movie, perhaps one of the best-known uses of the Wurlitzer. In “Angora Love”, an escaped goat decides to follow Laurel & Hardy back to their lodgings and does almost anything to avoid a bath. Made in 1929, this was the last silent-movie made by the duo. In the intervening twenty minutes Eddington’s careful accompaniment complemented every nuance of the film in much the same way a composer does today: only this was live and with no room for out-takes.

This concert concluded with a first performance – that of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from his opera Prince Igor, as arranged by Eddington. In his version, the dances felt much more authentic in terms of earthiness than they ever do from a chorus and orchestra. In addition Eddington’s passing reference to the 1953 musical Kismet made it all too clear: music can be reused to produce something as good as the original, but different. It also fixed the Wurlitzer to the music of the early-to-mid twentieth-century.

As an encore, Eddington played Billy Joel’s “Root Beer Rag”, taken from the 1998 album “Streetlife Serenade”. This final piece seemed to contradict everything Eddington had previously played – a piece of contemporary music, by a rock musician. The Rag has a strong resemblance to those of Scott Joplin and so, in fact, looks back to the heyday of the Wurlitzer: a fitting conclusion.

Jelani Eddington is a musician that you don’t want to miss even if you aren’t particularly fond of theatre-organ music; he is a very talented young man – you will leave the theatre impressed and with a smile on your face. He continues his tour of Australia and New Zealand throughout February and March, and then returns to the USA in April. He did mention that he would be in Europe in October/November time – let’s hope that he is playing a concert or two in the UK.

Find out more about Jelani Eddington and his concerts and recordings through the link below; there are also links to other Wurlitzer-related websites

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