If You Got To Ask, You Ain't Got It!
The first thing that strikes you about Fats Waller's music is how much fun it is. Today we recognize Waller as one of the first geniuses of jazz, both as a composer and as a musician, but jazz is serious business now and it's hard to imagine a guy like Waller doing his thing today.
This is probably why Waller doesn't enjoy the same status accorded to Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, or maybe it's because he died at the age of 39 before he was really able to leave his mark.
Whatever the reason, Waller's music is one of the treasures of American music, and everyone deserves to have some of his work is their collection to return to from time to time. This new compilation, produced by the legendary Orrin Keepnews, will do quite nicely.
Instead of organizing the set chronologically as has been done with the previous collections, Keepnews organizes the three CDs by theme. The first disc features Waller singing his own remarkable compositions, many of which, like "Honeysuckle Rose and "Ain't Misbehavin', became standards (at least for a time). The second disc features Waller tackling instrumentals with His Rhythm or, quite frequently, unaccompanied at the piano or organ. Disc three features Waller's treatment of other people's material, putting the spotlight on his ability to turn the most insignificant pop songs into pleasant toe-tappers.
If You Gotta Ask is an excellent compilation of Waller material that makes good use of advances in sound remastering. Keepnews had access to all of Waller's most important recordings, which came through the Victor label. While every Waller fan will find a favorite track or two that has been neglected, this is about as complete a compilation as you can get, and superior to the recent Centennial Collection (Bluebird, 2004).
For the novice, get ready to enjoy one of the great entertainers of the century. Waller was one heck of an improviser, able to put his stamp on anything he recorded (take a listen to "Dinah, which one would normally associate with Armstrong). And check out early pioneers like Mezz Mezzrow, Omer Simeon and Gene Cedric working out the template for jazz solos. Al Casey has always been a treat for people who enjoy rhythm guitar playing and wish they could hear Freddie Green a little better.
But most of all be prepared to hear some great treatments of classic songs that have fallen by the wayside, in a style that sounds surprisingly modern. Perhaps Waller's greatest gift was the ability to take stride piano and the concept of the New Orleans band and rocket it into the future. His songs are filled with bouncy stride and happy solos, as befits a man who made his name in vaudeville and at rent parties.
As a bonus, the set also includes DVD footage of Waller from movies and "talkies. (These weren't included in the promotional material, and so can't be reviewed here).
Track listing: CD1: Honeysuckle Rose; How Can You Face Me?; The Panic Is On; Sugar Rose; I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby; Lost Love; Our Love Was Meant To Be; The Joint Is Jumpin'; A Hopeless Love Affair; Hold My Hand; Patty Cake, Patty Cake; Honey Hush; Anita; Squeeze Me; Old Grand Dad; All That Meat And No Potatoes; Ain't Nothing To It; Bessie, Bessie, Bessie; Cash For Your Trash; You Must Be Losing Your Mind; Up Jumped You With Love; Ain't Misbehavin'.
CD2: St. Louis Blues; 'Sipi; Thou Swell; Numb Fumblin'; Ain't Misbehavin'; Smashing Thirds; My Fate Is In Your Hands; African Ripples; Viper's Drag; Keepin' Out Of Mischief Now; Star Dust; Carolina Shout; Serenade For A Wealthy Widow; Rosetta; Functionizin'; Loungin' At the Waldorf; Blue Turnin' Grey Over You; In The Gloamin'; Mamacita; The Jitterbug Waltz; Honeysuckle Rose.
CD3: I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You; You're Not the Only Oyster In The Stew; What's The Reason I'm Not Pleasin' You; Lulu's Back In Town; I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter; Dinah; There'll Be Some Changes Made; Somebody Stole My Gal; Christopher Columbus; It's A Sin To Tell A Lie; She's Tall, She's Tan, She's Terrific; The Shiek Of Araby; Two Sleepy People; A Good Man Is Hard To Find; Hold Tight; 'Taint What You Do It's The Way That You Do It; Your Feets Too Big; Darktown Strutter's Ball; I Can't Give You Anything But Love; You Run Your Mouth, I'll Run My Business; Let's Get Away From It All; 'Taint Nobody's Business If I Do.
Personnel: Thomas "Fats Waller: piano, pipe organ, electric organ, celeste, vocals; Herman Autrey, Bunny Berigan, Sterling Bose, Benny Carter, Bill Coleman, John Hamilton, Charlie Teagarden, Joe Thomas, Bob Williams, Nathaniel Williams: trumpet; Jabbo Smith: cornet; Tommy Dorsey, Herb Flemming, John Haughton, Ray Hogan, Alton Moore, Benny Morton, Floyd O'Brien, George Robinson, George Wilson: trombone; Jack Teagarden, trombone, vocal; Emmett Matthews: soprano saxophone; Pee Wee Russell: clarinet; Mezz Mezzrow, Rudy Powell: clarinet, alto saxophone; Garvin Bushell: clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon; Lawrence Fields, George James, Dave McCrae, Jimmy Powell, Alfred Skerrit: alto saxophone; Gene Sedric, Joe Catalyne, Max Farley: clarinet, tenor saxophone; William Alsop: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; Bob Carroll, Chauncey Graham, Lonnie Simmons: tenor saxophone; Adrian Rollini: baritone saxophone; Gene Porter: reeds; Irving Ashby, Al Casey, Dick McDonough, Nappy Lamare, James Smith, John Smith: guitar; Hank Duncan, James P. Johnson: piano; Artie Bernstein, Slam Stewart, Billy Taylor, Charles Turner, Cedric Wallace: bass; Harry Dial: vibraphone, drums; Larry Hinton, Slick Jones, Stan King, Arnold Boling, Yank Porter, Zutty Singleton, Arthur Trappier, George Wettling: drums; Una Mae Carlisle: vocals.
Personnel: Fats Waller with various artists.