No, not these.
They are certainly good for you. But I mean this.
It’s a recent CD on the Lake Records label, under the leadership of the irresistibly talented pianist / singer / arranger Jeff Barnhart, with the assistance of four wonderful players, who summon up all the many sides and angles of Thomas “Fats” Waller with love rather than caricature.
By “caricature” I mean that Fats Waller was — by definition — a powerful personality, but someone who could be reduced to a series of outlandish gestures by musicians who didn’t understand him very well: rapid-fire showy stride piano, high-power clowning and singing, all the “let’s have a party in three minutes” we hear on many of his recordings. Those “tributes,” and I’ve heard them, begin with the derby cocked over one eve, the same four or five songs, and they end at high volume. To quote Chubby Jackson on a satirical record circa 1945, “Wasn’t that swell?”
But the essence of Fats Waller is more subtle and more varied than any clownish portrait in broad strokes, and Jeff Barnhart — an improviser / entertainer who gets beneath the obvious surfaces — has long understood that Waller was equal parts stride virtuoso and soulful musician — singer, pianist, composer. . . someone with a heart as large as his famous girth. This isn’t to say that REFLECTIONS OF FATS doesn’t swing — but that it shows a deep awareness of Fats Waller’s depths. Jeff hasn’t devoted himself entirely to the esoteric: the disc offers AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW, YOUR FEET’S TOO BIG, BLUE TURNING GREY OVER YOU, THE JOINT IS JUMPIN’, and TWELFTH STREET RAG — but it also gives us the lesser-known compositions: a meaty RUMP STEAK SERENADE, KEEP A SONG IN YOUR SOUL, HOLD MY HAND, MOPPIN’ AND BOPPIN’, MY FATE IS IN YOUR HANDS. Three great delights of this disc are YOU MUST BE LOSING YOUR MIND (by Fats and Ed Kirkeby), AT TWILIGHT, and DO YOU HAVE TO GO? (both composed by Fats and his wife Anita). AT TWILIGHT alone is sweetly memorable.
Jeff Barnhart is a splendid stride pianist, swing pianist, and bandleader — his ensemble playing, his support of soloists, is both uplifting and delicious. And his singing is both original and Waller-imbued: he has some of the Master’s insinuating nasal croon that makes a Barnhart vocal both compelling theatre and a great deal of fun. He doesn’t need the derby, in short. On this CD he has assembled a neat band (shades of Fats’ Bluebird / Victor “Rhythm” but even more compact) of UK swing stars: John Hallam, reeds; Jamie Brownfield, trumpet; Bruce Rollo, string bass; Nick Ward, drums. The latter two are a better rhythm team than you’d hear on some Thirties recordings — having seen them in tandem and individually at Whitley Bay, I know they are solid senders. Nick Ward is sometimes pigeonholed as a “vintage drummer,” someone restricted by law and decency to his temple blocks, but he can swing out in the best style: Slick Jones would be proud. John Hallam can boot things along in the appropriately vehement manner, but I was most impressed by his tender, quiet playing (I thought of Harold Ashby) on the slower numbers. And Jamie Brownfield was only nineteen when this CD was made. He is a great player now, and I hope to hear more from him. And — as an aside — no one copies Autrey or Sedric here.
It’s a wonderful CD, full of surprises — with lovely annotations by Ray Smith and delightful recorded sound. You can obtain a copy here — I gather it is also available on iTunes, if this little band can fit in your earbuds. Consult with your audiologist first.
Now, I don’t have something that directly pertains to REFLECTIONS OF FATS to share with you . . . . but I can offer this. Jeff and his wife Anne (a splendid flautist and singer) who bill themselves as IVORY AND GOLD, have recently posted some performance videos on Jeff’s brand-new YouTube channel. With their playful seriousness and serious playfulness, they make music that Mr. Waller would have liked.
Here’s their version — too short! — of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’:
May your happiness increase.