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Fats Waller Selected Favorites, Vol. 12

Fats Waller

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Album Review

The French division of RCA created a large program of jazz reissues beginning in the early '70s, when the public's interest in such matters was just beginning to get noticed stateside. While larger indie labels such as the Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone conglomerate got the jump on the majors with double-record sets from vintage jazz artists, the parent RCA company was content to let the French handle this end of things, perhaps because the land of croissants had shown such great appreciation for American artists in the past. In many ways, the approach taken with the massive discography of Fats Waller was similar to how the French RCA dealt with Duke Ellington. Volumes are assembled based on attractive musical flow, with no observance to chronological order, jumping all over the calendar as a result. Although listeners will argue the merits of different editing approaches until the end of time, there is definitely something to be said for a concept based on the way things sound taking precedence, if an enjoyable listening experience rather than a history lesson is the end goal. The first volume in this original French set, which was also carved up into five-album box sets about the size of small tombstones, is devoted to the solo playing of Waller, mostly on piano but also including several amusing and uncharacteristic organ tracks. Consumers may thus find the history of this material even more confusing as they try to figure out what this nimble-fingered virtuoso is doing on the keyboards, but only if the listeners in question are not pianists. There are several solo piano releases under this artist's name that include some of this material; RCA also launched its own reissue series in the '90s with the material assembled in double-volume sets. The first and second volumes in this later series include some of these tracks, although not all of them by any means, and the sequencing and manner in which these '90s volumes were compiled is completely different once again.

Sticking with the subject at hand, the music here begins in a small New Jersey church, where Waller sets a tone both surrealistic and profound by launching into "St. Louis Blues" on the organ, a church organ moment that totally blows away the highly controversial performance of "Louie, Louie" by Don Preston on the pipe organ at Royal Albert Hall many years later. Following another blues, listeners jump ahead a year, then another two, for a series of solo piano tracks cut by Waller in various locations through the late '20s. This material is astounding, displaying just about anything anybody would ever want to do musically. Humor, driving swing, a rocking beat, incredible musical virtuosity, harmonic nose-thumbing, and a moving sense of sentimentality are among the many aspects of these performances that can be praised to the skies. Some of these tracks simply rate as some of the finest solo piano tracks recorded in jazz, and it isn't much of a jump to extend that to the music world in general. The flip side is more of the same, although listeners jump to 1934 and 1941, the pianist's style simply becoming more and more interesting, although not in any way to detract from the quality of the earlier performances in comparison. At least in terms of this single set, some attention has been paid to history, as these solos are sequenced in the order they were recorded. "Carolina Shout" and a version of "Tea for Two" that will make it hard to listen to anyone else do the song are among the highlights. "Honeysuckle Rose" (which is subtitled "à la Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Waller) is a hysterically funny recording landmark, the classical quotes turning up like coins found under the edge of a rug. Vocals can be mentioned as a definite last-but-not-least aspect. Waller was a marvelous singer, tuneful and in control of timing that would make a standup comic envious. He is not a vocal virtuoso such as Ella Fitzgerald; one cannot say he uses his voice like a skilled player wields an instrument. But he belongs to the school of great jazz masters who used vocals as an engaging and entertaining part of their performances, and was often cited by Rahsaan Roland Kirk as a great inspiration when that artist was mentioning jazz greats who might have gotten overlooked because of the comedy quotient of their work.

Biography

Born: 21 May 1904 in New York, NY

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '20s, '30s, '40s

Not only was Fats Waller one of the greatest pianists jazz has ever known, he was also one of its most exuberantly funny entertainers — and as so often happens, one facet tends to obscure the other. His extraordinarily light and flexible touch belied his ample physical girth; he could swing as hard as any pianist alive or dead in his classic James P. Johnson-derived stride manner, with a powerful left hand delivering the octaves and tenths in a tireless, rapid, seamless stream. Waller also...
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