Friday, December 31, 2010

Fats Waller Always Had It

Thomas “Fats” Waller was one of the iconic figures of the first quarter century of Jazz and has been heavily re- issued over the years. As a result of the Sony/BMG merger, Bluebird/Legacy is releasing a three CD retrospective titled “If You Have to Ask, You Ain’t Got It.” Each disc has twenty-two selections and is thematically organized.

A good many of the performances are by Fats Waller and Rhythm, a celebrated sextet whose personnel included (over the years) guitarist Al Casey, clarinetist Gene Sedric, Bill Coleman and more celebrated Herman Autrey on trum-pet, Cedrick Wallace on bass and Yank Porter, Slick Jones and Arthur Trappier on drums. Many of the selections on these discs are in this format with Waller featured singing and on piano and the various horn players getting short solo space; and while a bit formula-based, Waller’s ebullient vocals and dazzling piano playing sustain the listener’s interest. There are a number of selections from the forties that have Waller in a big and setting and some solo instrumentals as well.

The first of the three discs is devoted to songs that Waller composed, often in the company of Andy Razaf or others. When going through the titles one is struck by the fact that he not only gave us such well known songs associated with him such as Honeysuckle Rose and Ain’t Misbehavin’, but also such classics as Our Love Was Meant to Be, Squeeze Me (with Clarence Williams), The Joint is Jumpin’ (with J.C. Johnson), Bessie Bessie Bessie, Cash for Your Trash and Up Jumped You With Love. Waller brings wit, humor and tenderness to these with his vocals while the numbers swing with considerable Élan.

The Second Disc is all instrumental, opening with a solo pipe organ instrumental rendition of St. Louis Blues along with a couple other numbers on the pipe organ. The next ten performances are features that display his considerable mastery of the stride piano including such dazzling Waller originals as Numb Fingers, Smashing Thirds, and African Ripples, along with renditions of Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust and Ain’t Misbehavin’, concluding with a stunning rendition of James P. Johnson’s classic stride composition, Carolina Shout. After several group instrumentals, Waller then is heard on electric organ on a couple of originals, including Jitterbug Waltz, which show his reflective side as a composer. The instrumental disc concludes with an all star group swinging on Honeysuckle Rose.

The final disc is devoted to Waller’s performances of songs from Tin Pan Alley. Waller was celebrated for his ability to take some of the most dreadful songs and make musical magic, all the while mocking the material, but not everything he recorded from Tin Pan Alley would be dross in the hands of others. So while some of these tunes may be remembered solely because of Waller, such as Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood, Mama), many of the tunes here are pretty well known including (I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You (an All Star performance with Waller on piano behind Jack Teagarden), I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, Dinah, Christopher Columbus, Darktown Strutters Ball, Your Feet’s Too Big, and T’aint Nobody’s Biz-Ness If I Do. Waller attacks these with his usual mix of ebullient vocals, buoyant stride piano with the strong swing backing of his Rhythm and the other supporting musicians.

Although I worked off an advance copy of the discs to get this done in time, the actual release (set for 9/26/06) will also include a 100-page booklet with extensive liner notes penned by Dan Morganstern and scanned reproductions of photographs from the collection of Waller’s last manager, Ed Kirkeby. The three discs in this set provide a solid over- view of a legendary jazz performer and will serve as a basic Waller release for a well-rounded jazz collection.

This review originally appeared in the October 2006 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 287), and the advance copy provided for review was provided by Sony.

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