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Low Down Papa

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Album Review

When young Thomas Waller began to develop himself as a professional pianist under the tutelage of the great James P. Johnson, he followed in his mentor's footsteps by cutting both phonograph records and player piano rolls. While the sound recordings are generally recognized as precious relics of early jazz, any intelligent assessment of Waller's early work must also take into account those tightly wound scrolls of perforated paper. Each piano roll was created over a lengthy span of time, first by the pianist whose every note was marked onto a roll by a specially chalked recording mechanism, then by a team of engineers who manually punched hundreds of little holes to create the master roll. Much critical emphasis has been placed upon some technicians' tendency to add notes during this leg of the process, resulting in cluttered or "impossible" passages, or to repeat entire sections verbatim in order to increase the duration of the roll. The fact remains that player piano rolls formed a substantial part of the bedrock of young Fats Waller's career. In 1990 the Biograph label, having originally brought out all of Waller's known rolls on LP, compiled 13 choice examples on this CD entitled Low Down Papa. Highlights include a swell rendition of Bessie Smith's "Jailhouse Blues," amazing versions of "Your Time Now," "Haitian Blues," "Do It! Mister So and So," and a thrilling Waller/Johnson duet performance of "Cryin' for My Used to Be." The fact that Waller's "Wild Cat Blues" wasn't actually played by him is immaterial; hearing this stimulating melody played back in this manner is a real treat. (Waller's piano rolls may also be heard played through a Compton theater organ on Fats at the Organ on ASV/Living Era 5007, 1992.)

This is a region of ragtime and early jazz that is ripe for re-evaluation. Many individuals who write about early jazz apparently suffer from an inability to enjoy, comprehend, or properly assess early-20th century player piano rolls. Overarching, generalized, dismissive statements regarding this medium can be unfair and misleading. Contrary to prevailing 21st century attitudes, one should not expect the piano roll to perfectly reproduce the performance style of a given pianist. While such miracles have been accomplished under certain high-tech conditions, as with Artis Wodehouse's 1999 Yamaha Disklavier realization of Jelly Roll Morton's piano rolls for Elektra/Nonesuch, the original rolls should be approached as a replication of the listening experience enjoyed by millions of people from the 1890s through the early 1930s. It is also important to remember that the same piano roll can sound dramatically different depending upon how it is played back. Clumsy reproduction can and will bring out those aspects of the medium — mechanical-sounding action, adrenalin tempos, and tinny tonality — that people most often complain about. In the case of the early Welte-Mignon rolls, pedal action was recorded along with the notes, enabling the otherwise unrecorded Gustav Mahler to leave behind a tiny body of precious piano rolls for posterity (see Mahler Plays Mahler, Golden Legacy, 1993). A delightfully innovative conceptual component emerged during the second half of the 20th century as Conlon Nancarrow began punching his own rolls to create fantastically complex and seemingly "impossible" Studies for Player Piano. Considered in the light of these far-reaching developments, Fats Waller's piano rolls occupy a special place in a genre of mechanically reproduced music that has yet to be properly understood or fully appreciated.


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 pioneered...
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