Fats Waller left us in 1943. Both he and his swinging little band — his Rhythm — are inimitable. But jazz musicians have a good deal of fun trying, in their own ways, to evoke their joyous spirit. And their efforts give us joy, too. Dick Wellstood had his Friends of Fats; Mark Shane has FATS LIVES!
The most recent — and highly successful — effort is captured on a new Rivermont Records CD: PAUL ASARO and THE FAT BABIES: WHAT A HEAVENLY DREAM / THE FATS WALLER RHYTHM PROJECT (BSW-2222). Paul Asaro has been a sweetly propulsive pianist and equally fine singer for some years now, and this CD captures him in great form with a band of musicians who are working on his level — the hot Chicago band led by string bassist Beau Sample, with Alex Hall (drums); Jake Sanders (guitar); John Otto (reeds); Andy Schumm (cornet).
How good is this session? Two critical reactions will have to suffice here. One is that I received the disc in the mail (a holiday present from a jazz friend!), listened to it last night and this afternoon, and am impelled to let you know about it as soon as possible. The second is a small experiment I conducted — and it’s one of those you can indeed try at home in complete safetly. I put the CD into the Beloved’s computer (two rooms away) and let it start up. “Is that Fats?” she said immediately. When I explained that it was a modern band in the Waller spirit, she said, “Wow, they are swinging like mad.” And the Beloved knows Swing.
On the surface, this project looks familiar: fourteen songs, all but one of them recorded by Fats and the Rhythm between 1934-1941. But there is nothing formulaic about this disc. For one thing, there’s no lengthy renditions of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW, or HONEYSUCKLE ROSE. Some of the songs are familiar — YOUR FEET’S TOO BIG, TRUCKIN’, BLUE TURNING GREY OVER YOU — but the majority are lesser-played, and some are deliciously obscure: YOU’RE MY DISH, ABDULLAH, GOT NO TIME, and WINTER WEATHER. Paul sings on several of the songs, but he is wise enough not to attempt Fats’ particular brand of theatrical jocularity. And the players are on their own to tell their own stories — a great thing.
What distinguishes this disc from other Waller-inspired evocations is its overall gentleness and sweetness. Yes, a number of the performances are up-tempo romps so that Paul can show off his considerable stride chops and the band can make any good-sized building sway back and forth, but much of the disc is devoted to sweet-tempered rhythm ballads — coaxing rather than stomping. Paul is responsible for this musical worldview, which makes the CD easy to love rather than difficult to endure (many CDs, however well-meant, grow tedious because of a sameness of approach) but the players here offer their most friendly selves.
The rhythm section of Hall, Sample, and Sanders chooses simplicity over virtuosity; they glide rather than push, and the music breathes beautifully. John Otto is characteristically subtle on tenor and clarinet, with none of the dramatics Fats’ reedmen sometimes drifted towards. And then there’s Andy Schumm — making the whole enterprise glow with a delicate sound that of course recalls a mid-Thirties Bix . . . but I thought more often of the young Bobby Hackett on the Decca Dick Robertson sides and, at times, what would have happened if Joe Smith had lived.
This edition of the Rhythm — 2012 style — is precious, and I can only hope that Paul and company achieve their next dream, which is a CD of songs Fats never recorded done in this blissful way.
But wait! There’s more. This recording is available both as standard audio CD and also as an audiophile-grade vinyl LP limited to 500 copies (in your choice of crystal clear or standard black vinyl). BONUS: Each LP includes a complimentary CD copy of the entire album. Enjoy the album on vinyl and CD for the same price as the CD alone.
Yum yum yum, to quote Mr. Waller.
May your happiness increase.