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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Waller Bag

From the Woodpile Dept.: Here’s a piece from 2006 I never quite finished, and I can’t remember why. Slothlike neglectfulness comes to mind as a possibility. I’ve given it an ending and added a postscript to bring the recorded world of Waller up to date.


SUCH A PRODIGIOUS recording artist, and so sketchily served by his label over the years! Fats Waller’s hundreds of studio recordings sold like hotcakes in the late ’30s and early ’40s, before any scholarly kind of discography could be assembled; from there into the LP days his stuff was the stuff of albums here and there, a dozen or so Waller sides gracing each collection.

Just as LPs were gasping their last, RCA Bluebird embarked on a series of two-record sets intended to present a complete collection, but its vinyl provenance doomed the project.

Producer Orrin Keepnews eventually was able to do Waller theoretical justice with a set of 18 CDs, issued as singles and in twos and threes, but they suffered (as did so many reissues in the early CD days) from a cloth-eared use of noise-reduction software. And they were issued over so long a period of time that the earlier issues had gone out of print as the later ones appeared.

Do we need that much Waller? The point is arguable. Limitations impose creative challenges, and Keepnews now has risen to the assignment of creating a three-CD Fats Waller set by dividing it into a disc apiece of songs by Waller, instrumental recordings and a collection of Tin Pan Alley numbers given Fats’s unique treatment.

Fresh transfers make for better sound, although I’d still welcome a lot more hiss in exchange for high-frequency colors.

Waller was a stride pianist in the James P. Johnson tradition, but he was the all-time best of them, with an unflagging sense of harmony and rhythm and the ability to color any instrumental combo, from solos to small groups to big bands. Add to that his vocals, which ranged from the almost straightforward to comically over-the-top, as much commenting on the song, as notes writer Dan Morgenstern observes, as he is singing them.

Morgenstern’s excellent essay gives the standard overview of Waller’s life, but adds insights about Waller’s musicianship and place in musical history that add a valuable perspective. It’s a long piece, occupying a large chunk of the hundred-page booklet – more than half of which is taken up with new-to-me photos.

Although most of the 66 tracks were issued under Waller’s name, the set includes a 1928 Louisiana Sugar Babies cut (with trumpeter Jabbo Smith) and a number with Jack Teagarden’s 1931 orchestra, both of which offer a valuable view of Waller as somebody else’s sideman.

Oh, he was a prolific songwriter, often selling his melodies outright and even foregoing a credit. He’d be a luminary if he’d only written “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” but, as disc one demonstrates, he went far beyond that. It’s a 22-track collection of his own performances, bookended by the aforementioned numbers and including “The Joint is Jumpin’,” “Squeeze Me,” and the not-so-subtle “All That Meat and No Potatoes.”

Most of them feature the ensemble tagged to his name as “His Rhythm,” typically with trumpet and reed over the guitar-rich rhythm section, although there’s a 1938 “Hold My Hand” with a big band-sized complement of trumpets, trombones, saxes, and clarinet.

More Waller originals are on disc two, which presents instrumentals only. “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” return, along with “Keepin’ out of Mischief Now” and such amazing Waller solo-piano novelties as “Numb Fumblin’,” which showcases his amazingly clean technique.

He named the organ as his preferred instrument, but recorded few cuts with it. Here you’ll find a lively “St. Louis Blues,” Jabbo Smith joining him on “Thou Swell,” and Waller’s own stately “Jitterbug Waltz.”

Finally, 22 tracks of Waller as most remember him: merrily deconstructing Tin Pan Alley with his who-gives-a-shit vocals, throwing in gems of piano improvisation so offhandedly that you may not hear the genius at first.

His vocal on “Somebody Stole My Gal” alternates between rage and tearful self-pity. “Hold Tight” makes it clear what kind of seafood he seeks, Mama, and “Christopher Columbus” contains one of dirtiest mass-distribution jokes of 1936. Reason enough to obtain and enjoy this set? I think so.

Fats Waller: If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It!


2012 Update
: I’m pleased to see that the set still has an Amazon presence. There’s no single-disc offering out there that covers the Waller territory as nicely as this collection.

But I’m an obsessive completist, and was thrilled to learn that JSP, a small UK-based record label, took on the Waller catalogue. Founded by legendary reissue transfer artist John R. T. Davies, JSP specializes in vintage jazz, and made all of Waller’s commercial recordings available in six sets (five with four CDs, the sixth with five), ordered chronologically, and including Waller’s European recordings, which weren’t available in the RCA releases.

Which means an added treasure-trove of ensemble sides and organ recordings he made in London. Also included are early rarities not otherwise collected, and alternate takes that never showed up in RCA’s re-releases. Davies died while doing the early work on this collection, but the remastering was taken over by the brilliant engineer Ted Kendall, so these sound about the best as the Waller recordings ever will.

1 comment:

Harry Minot said...

Can't say enough about Ted Kendall. He has applied his formidable transfer-and-restoration talents to a huge amount of material. His work finds its way onto JSP, Frog (late lamented), and many other labels. He really ought to be Knighted. And his work on the legendary BBC Radio comedy program The Goon Show ought to be a path toward Sainthood.