Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

July 11, 2013

Silent movie, live piano music at Huntington Museum of Art

Lee Ward
The Independent

HUNTINGTON — Most people have no memory of the silent film era. Pianist Ethan Uslan is aiming to create such memories with a performance at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Huntington Museum of Art.

Uslan, 33, of Charlotte, N.C., will perform a mixture of ragtime, classical jazz and popular songs by Fats Waller, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and others to the silent Buster Keaton movie “One Week.”

He said he was first exposed to silent films with live music during a jazz festival in Huntington.

“I saw the West End Jazz Band from Chicago play 1920s jazz, along with a slapstick film from the 1920s,” he recalled. “I loved it and realized that this was something I could do, too, as I know music from that era. So I got home, bought a few silent film DVDs, practiced playing along with them and set out trying to get some gigs.”

The two-time winner of the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest has booked gigs, playing at a piano bar in his hometown and at other museums and concert halls.

He said his approach to playing music to accompany a movie depends on the movie itself.

“In a comedy, I do a lot of improvising with old songs from the era, speeding up, slowing down, shifting along with the music, and it is somewhat different every time,” he said, noting he doesn’t always get to see the movie in advance, but if he does, he can “ really sync things up and get the maximum effect.” For sure, though, he said he does a lot of improvising.

“In dramas, I play a lot of classical music because it’s better for tear-jerking!”

Regardless of the movie or the piece he’s playing, he said he tries to apply his ragtime style.

“I like to play in the style of Fats Waller!” he said. “It’s fun to take a piece by say, Beethoven, and surprise people by playing it in the style of Fats Waller.”

Eslan, a graduate of Indiana University, has appeared on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” He also stars in the award-winning documentary “The Entertainers.”

LEE WARD can be reached at lward@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2661.