The centennial of Thomas "Fats" Waller’s birth is yet another good reason to release another collection of his recordings. This one is a nice accumulation of songs (don’t know why “Jitterbug Waltz” is missing), enough to whet newcomers' appetites. Plus, this disc includes a bonus DVD of footage from King of Burlesque
and an animated version of “Your Feets Too Big.” The "music video" shows Waller as a jester and entertainer, mugging for the camera. I’ll leave the cultural criticism of Waller and Louis Armstrong to the social historians; this video gives us a glimpse of Waller’s playful nature.
We are here about the music, and Waller was a true stride pianist maybe equal to James P. Johnson. His songwriting on “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter,” “Ain’t Misbehaving,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” and "Honeysuckle Rose" is a foundation of the American experience. He certainly admired (and was admired by) the Gershwins.
Waller was also a talented organ player. He loved to find pipe organs in towns he was visiting and play "serious" music. In this collection he plays the organ with Alberta Hunter adding vocals on “Beale Street Blues. His solo piano playing, as on “Numb Fumblin’,” shows both his skilled two-handed dexterity and his close alliance to Tin Pan Alley.
As a wordsmith, the only modern comparison might be Elvis Costello.
Fats Waller’s brilliance shone for a short 39 years. Indeed, those whose candles burn the brightest seem to burn the shortest.