Saturday, 18 April 2015

When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful

Consider Mr Thomas "Fats" Waller:

When I started a journey of discovery through the world of "Jazz Standards" the name of Fats Waller kept on cropping up, in two specific ways:

  • beautifully crafted tunes that seemed to epitomise the best of the popular music of the 20's, 30's and 40's; and 
  • swinging piano performances, the easy sprung rhythms disguising his virtuosity. 
Luckily, we have recordings. Try this, his own tune, played and sung by himself.

The relaxed tempo, the elastic propulsion and the sweetness of the melody (underpinned by a great chord progression) make this a fantastic tune to play in our jazz group.

It's an ongoing theme of this blog that good tunes have staying power, and are taken up by successive generations. In other words they become standards for good reasons: in the case of Fats' tunes, I reckon it's because they are simply great fun to play.

The number of tunes he wrote is disputed - numbers range from 300 to over 500.  (The reason for the uncertainty seems to be that he sold the rights on a very casual basis, sometimes for very little money).

His too-short life is well-documented and full of incident.  But this blog is about the music: so here are a bunch of his tunes, from artists ancient and modern:

Susie Arioli, a modern Canadian musician (definitely worth exploring in her own right) with "Honeysuckle Rose" (and the guitar solos on this are superb):

And here's the man himself, and his "Rhythm Band", with "Ain't Misbehavin'".


Louis Armstrong doing justice to the rather more serious "Black and Blue"
(My only sin / is in my skin / What did I do / to be so black and blue?):

Well, we could easily get stuck on "Louis Plays Fats". His version of "Blue Turning Grey Over You" is a classic, but this George Melly version is worth a listen, not least for (John Chilton's?) trumpet.

Playfulness abounds.  "Jitterbug Waltz" seems like a joke, but also a very successful musical experiment.  Charlie Byrd:

And how about this from the Wiyos:

And then there are the disputed songs:  some say that he sold the rights to "On the Sunny Side of the Street" for a pittance just before it became a hit.  Who knows, it certainly has that Fats feel, and playability.  How could I resist this Rod Stewart rendition?

One could go on and on (and maybe I already have gone on too long). There's an ease and a grace here that I find very comfortable: a remarkable talent, and a remarkable legacy.

And I love that artists keep recording these tunes.  Sometimes "covered" tunes change to fit into whatever style the artists choose.  But Waller's standards seem to resist this, and instead drag the artist back to Fats' time.  Well, sometimes they don't need much dragging:  here is Brian Ferry.

The wonderful Fats Waller.  Long may we play his melodies.