The Centennial Collections: Waller and Miller

David Rickert By

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The new Centennial Collections from Bluebird celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of some of its biggest artists in a novel format. In addition to a CD featuring the best recordings of each artist, the package also includes a DVD with performances, movie appearances, and home movie footage. Each set also includes rare or unreleased performances and is designed to appeal to newcomer and collector alike. With the CD/DVD combination, Bluebird has come up with an appealing format that other labels will hopefully duplicate. The first two collections spotlight Fats Waller and Glenn Miller with sets by Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, and Coleman Hawkins coming later in the year.

The Centennial Collection
Fats Waller

Waller’s collection transports the listener back to a time in between the world wars, when the recorded music industry was just taking off and pop and jazz were virtually synonymous. Although first and foremost a talented pianist, Waller cemented his reputation by recording light-hearted vocal numbers that addressed typical subjects: love lost, love found, and big feet. Most of the numbers selected feature Waller and his Rhythm, performing a mix of Waller originals and lesser known tunes that Waller infuses with his typical enthusiasm. Ever the crowd pleaser, he was capable of turning even the most insignificant pop song into a hopping jazz number, featuring vocals and spirited improvisation in equal measures. Early pioneers like Herman Autrey and Gene Sedric worked out a template for jazz soloing that still holds up well today, but the real driving force is Waller and his powerful piano, as he enthusiastically provides a firm stride bass and rippling solos. “Spring Cleaning” and “Your Feet’s Too Big” are overwhelming with Waller’s personality, demonstrating that his comic delivery was a large part of his success. Guitarist Al Casey is also well represented, much more so than on the previous Bluebird’s Best compilation.

In addition, the set includes some fine solo recordings such as “African Ripples”, a showcase for Waller’s compositional gifts and flawless technique. Although Waller’s preferred instrument was the organ, mercifully only one of these tunes is included, as they don’t hold up well today since most people are more used to the meatier sound of the Hammond B-3.

Although The Centennial Collection provides a good sampling of his career, surprisingly some of Waller’s best known originals aren’t represented, such as “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” only appears in a medley of other tunes (although the latter two appear on the DVD). However, this compilation is still an excellent starting point for those who haven’t experienced Waller’s music. Waller’s fans will enjoy the rare radio broadcasts that they may not have heard, but may ultimately be frustrated by the fact that the double disc RCA collections remain out of print.

The DVD features some entertaining footage of Waller performing early hits in “soundies” (promotional films that served the same purpose as music videos today) as well as a performance taken from the film “King of Burlesque”. The DVD performances not only feature great music, but also show Waller mugging for the camera, wide-eyed and grinning in front of an enthusiastic band and wild crowd. A cartoon set to “Your Feet’s Too Big” seems appropriate, since Waller was pretty close to a cartoon already.

Depending on your interests, this may be the best Waller collection currently available.

The Centennial Collection
Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller favored a big band style that today is all but extinct; contemporaries like Goodman and Ellington still sound relevant, but Miller’s orchestra seems trapped in the past. However, there’s no denying that Miller gave the people what they wanted, as the dancing crowd kept him on the airwaves constantly for about three years and have kept his records in circulation ever since. His string of hits was an essential soundtrack for an entire generation, but critics claimed that Miller was a sell-out, playing pop fluff to an eager crowd, and forgoing the expert soloing seen in other outfits.

Many of the songs featured on this collection will be familiar even to those who never knew they were Miller’s recordings. “In the Mood” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” are pleasantly hopping pop tunes while “Moonlight Serenade” is a dreamy lullaby that Miller used as his theme song. Many of these tunes feature vocals courtesy of early crooners like Ray Eberle, who employed a sonorous, affected vocal style that went out of fashion quickly once Crosby and Sinatra made it big. The final song, a remix of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” by DJ Touché, is another attempt to repackage old swing hits for a younger crowd. One can only imagine that most will eject the CD after a few seconds.

However, for those who are looking to add some Miller to their collection, this one isn’t any better or any worse than anything that’s currently available. All the popular songs are here, and some rare performances found in the vaults are included to make the set appealing to collectors, who probably have most of this stuff already. In another move to draw in the overzealous, the bonus DVD features performances culled from movies and some interesting home movie footage courtesy of bassist Trigger Alpert. As with the Waller footage it’s a fascinating relic, but probably not worth the money on its own (how often would you really watch it, anyway?)

In the end though, fans of Miller will probably be the ones who most benefit from the collection with the extra goodies and beefed-up remastering (even if it is a little too bright). An excellent purchase for someone from the Greatest Generation; just make sure you let them borrow your DVD player too.

Fats Waller-The Centennial Collection
Tracks: 1. I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter 2. Got a Bran’ New Suit 3. Your Feet’s Too Big 4. Medley (NBC On-Air Studio Recording): Ain’t Misbehavin’/ Hold My Hand/ What’s the Matter With You?/ Hallelujah/ Hold My Hand 5. Spring Cleaning 6. African Ripples 7. You’re Not the Only Oyster In This Stew 8. The Joint Is Jumpin’ 9. Beale Street Blues 10. Numb Fumblin’ 11. E-Flat Blues 12. Lulu’s Back In Town 13. Loafin’ Time 14. I Ain’t Got Nobody 15. Carolina Shout 16. (Do You Intend To Put an End To) A Sweet Beginning 17. If You’re A Viper 18. Undecided 19. Then I’ll Be Tired of You 20. Up Jumped You With Love 21. ‘Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do.
Personnel: Fats Waller – piano, organ; various others.

Glenn Miller-The Centennial Collection
Tracks: 1. Moonlight Serenade 2. Chattanooga Choo Choo 3. Juke Box Saturday Night 4. Over the Rainbow 5. Tuxedo Junction 6. In the Mood 7. Fools Rush In 8. Imagination 9. The Boogie Wooglie Piggy 10. A String of Pearls 11. When You Wish Upon A Star 12. Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree 13. Pennsylvania 6-5000 14. Along the Santa Fe Trail 15. Begin the Beguine 16. At Last 17. King Porter Stomp (previously unreleased) 18. Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar (previously unreleased) 19. Moon Love (previously unreleased) 20 Pennsylvania 6-5000 (DJ Touché Remix).

Bluebird on the web: http://www.bluebirdjazz.com


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