Tag Archives: THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL

“THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL”: THE HOLLAND-COOTS JAZZ QUINTET HONORS FATS WALLER

In July, I spent five splendid days in Nashville as a delighted observer to a recording session that produced this rewarding tribute to Fats Waller, with Brian Holland, piano; Danny Coots, drums; Marc Caparone, cornet / vocal; Evan Arntzen, clarinet, tenor saxophone / vocal; Steve Pikal, string bass.

and the CD cover itself.  Don’t let the slogan frighten you: for the moment at least, joy is still legal and unregulated.  Should you want a copy immediately, without reading another word, visit here and the door to gladness will swing open easily.

This isn’t a formulaic tribute, with players imitating the Victor sessions and tossing off already-venerable Fats-wisecracks.  No, something much better.  It’s music.  Click here and you can hear a sample track — the Quintet’s version of Fats’ 1943 composition, MOPPIN’ AND BOPPIN’.

I had the privilege of writing the liner notes (I may have insisted on doing so: my memory betrays me here):

Fats Waller’s substantial physical envelope left the scene for another gig seventy-five years ago, but his joyous soul is still with us. This CD doesn’t attempt to replicate the former, but celebrates the latter in all its radiances.

Musicians have attempted to capture the totality of this great man. The road most often taken is presenting a lurid outsized caricature to fool us into thinking we have his essence in our possession. Imagine Fats as a parade float three stories high, grotesque head, tilted derby, restless eyebrows, a cavernous mouth full of vaudeville asides we expect to hear. While the head waggles in the breeze, a loop of his greatest eight-bar piano modules plays endlessly through massive speakers.

With the best intentions in the world (and sometimes with the best musicians in invisible shackles) many tributes go this way. One hears a band, its members pretending to be Herman, Gene, and Al, energetically playing the best-known Waller compositions or songs he’s identified with, copying as closely as possible his 1934-43 Victor records. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so severe, because Fats was such a powerfully appealing personality whose records sold so well that such “tributes” were happening while he was around to hear them. Records by Pat Flowers, Johnny Guarnieri, Bob Howard, Putney Dandridge, and others might at first make listeners think they have wandered into Plato’s cave of small-band jive. But the real Fats leans outside, smoking, untouched by such parasitic adulation. (Incidentally, my censure is not limited to Fats-by-the-yard productions, for many people who tell you how they revere the innovators have misread them similarly, reducing Louis to a sweaty handkerchief, Billie to a discontented meow.)

This disc is different. Ignore the familiar picture of Fats on the cover, ready to deliver a wisecrack he’d delivered too many times already, the Groucho Marx of jazz. Think, instead, of the Thomas Waller who swung without letup, created beautiful melodies, and sang with affectionate sincerity. (If you don’t think of him as a tender singer of ballads, search out his Bluebird recording of I’LL NEVER SMILE AGAIN.) With that in mind, I urge you to begin your listening with one of the least-known songs on this disc, LET’S PRETEND THAT THERE’S A MOON. At an easy fox-trot tempo, it begins with Brian’s solo chorus, clearly stating the melody while luxuriating in its possibilities, a ninety-second statement that would have been taken up the first half of a 10” 78 rpm disc. Then “here comes the band!” as Willie “the Lion” Smith would say, Marc Caparone quietly suggesting that the blues are at the heart of everything or at least the first sixteen bars, before Evan plays the bridge in the best limpid way, before the band returns. Evan then comes in to sing – and what a singer he is! – with Brian gently creating some Nashville ripples, behind him, Marc, Steve, and Danny gently rocking the imaginary canoe before Evan and Brian, true romantics, remind us all what the song is about: hopeful love, love that climbs to an exultant sweet high note. I was in the studio for this performance and there was a hush when it ended. I take notes at a session, and mine read: “Brian solo / ens / voc EA . . . . . perfect.”

Fats’ music transcends romance, however, to celebrate the pure joy of life. His compositions on this disc focus on the rewards of fidelity and good behavior, as well as creating a Frolic that might be either a Drag of a Fuss. Courtesy of Alex Hill and Claude Hopkins, pianist-composers who breathed the same uptown air, we praise BABY BROWN and a statement of complete devotion, by which I mean this band leaves the “MOST” out of I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU. James P. Johnson, Fats’ teacher and our hero, says that sixty minutes is enough room to create happiness; we believe in miracles but, just the same, have our fingers crossed, celebrate a love that is so pleasing we expect the authorities any minute; we ask the musical question “Whose tea do you sweeten?” Of course, our romantic Zeppelins sometimes crash and burn, so there’s LONESOME ME, one of Fats’ sweet sorrowful triumphs. And splendid oddities – MOPPIN’ AND BOPPIN’, which comes from Fats’ star turns in the film STORMY WEATHER; LIVER LIP JONES, a close cousin of the characters we know from Ellington’s A SLIP OF THE LIP and Morton’s BIG LIP BLUES. Who knew that loquaciousness was such a problem uptown?

Intentionally, I haven’t said anything about the band except by implication. Very little needs saying except that they work together as brothers – each a wonderful soloist and an absolute marvel as a team player, ready to be lyrical or hot, bluesy, rampaging, or sentimental. At close range, and this counts a great deal for me, not one of them is a blabbermouth rascal.

This CD, so beautifully recorded and wisely programmed, is the debut on disc of the Holland-Coots Quintet. I hope for dozens more discs and lots of gigs in my lifetime and yours. Their expression of musical creativity, lyrical, warm, sometimes hilarious (I play and replay the introduction to WHOSE HONEY ARE YOU), celebrates the joyous merrymaker, but it is more an outpouring of devotion for Fats and what he did so open-heartedly.

Our universe often feels dark these days. The light he shines so brightly is always welcome. The time and place are opportune.

Again, you can proceed bravely into commerce and purchase copies here.

May your happiness increase!

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“SWINGIN’ FOR THE FENCES”: BRIAN HOLLAND AND DANNY COOTS (AND MORE)

Oh, no.  Another wonderful CD?  Will those musicians ever let us alone?  When the musicians are pianist Brian Holland and drummer Danny Coots, the answer is a joyous NO.

But first.  Let’s assume you’ve never heard Brian and Danny.  Nothing simpler than remedying this deficiency. From the 2017 Santa Cruz Ragtime Festival, here is their rendition of two Fats Waller compositions, JITTERBUG WALTZ and BACH UP TO ME:

and here are the two gentlemen, caught by a still camera:

Holland (left), Coots (right), for those who have never had the good fortune to see and hear them in person or in action or both.

Their new CD is a delightfully varied offering:

The songs:  Charleston Rag / Jimmy McHugh Medley (Spreadin’ Rhythm Around – I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed) / Memphis Blues / Doll Dance / Wolverine Blues / Black and Blue / Tico Tico – Besame Mucho / Root Beer Rag / Hymn to Freedom / Violet Wedding (A Song for Marcia) / Rubber Plant Rag / Ragtime Nightingale / Troublesome Ivories / Planxty.

Students of the music will notice some well-deserved homages to great composers and players: Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, Nacio Herb Brown, Jimmy McHugh, Joseph Lamb, and a few slightly less expected sources: Oscar Peterson, Glenn Jenks, Billy Joel, and an original by Brian.  Ragtime, stride, novelty piano, deep blues, venerable pop tunes, and more.

The title of the CD — even for those who shy away from professional sports, like me — would explicitly suggest that virtuosic larger-than-life musical athleticism is in store.  And in a few instances that impression is correct.  Brian and Danny romp with great grace and power, and they can show off in the most impressive musical ways.  You won’t find players who are more deft at fast tempos than these two, and their quickest skirmishes still make great artistic sense: the listener never feels pummeled with notes.  They work together splendidly as a telepathic team, hearing each other’s impulses and subtexts as well.

But leave aside the gorgeous rapid beauties of the up-tempo performances –CHARLESTON RAG, DOLL DANCE, RUBBER PLANT RAG, TROUBLESOME IVORIES, to consider BLACK AND BLUE, which Brian says he began, musingly, in an effort to get into the mind of Thomas Waller — whose affecting song about racial prejudice this is. It is the most quiet and searching show-stopper I can imagine, beginning with pensive suspended chords, an improvisation that hints at Beiderbecke and Gershwin, before gaining emotional power as it climbs to a moving end.  I call it a show-stopper because once it had concluded, I was overpowered and needed to pause before moving on to the next track.

In an entirely different way, HYMN TO FREEDOM begins as a solo human being’s prayer — for what and to whom I leave to you — and ends up as a jubilant prayer meeting.  PLANXTY starts as a small utterance of grief and ends up a funeral procession, without its volume increasing that much.

But lamenting is not always what Danny and Brian have in mind.  Some of these duets are seriously cinematic: listening more than once to TICO-TICO / BESAME MUCHO, I found myself imagining the brightly colored musical film for which they had invented a provocative soundtrack.  I see elegant, formally dressed dancers all through RAGTIME NIGHTINGALE as well.  I have to say a word about TROUBLESOME IVORIES — perhaps too much autobiography — but had I the ability to dance, and a willing partner, I would not be typing these words now, being otherwise occupied.

The disc is beautifully recorded and, even better, splendidly sequenced, so one never has the sense of listening to ten or twelve minutes of the same thing. Piano and drums — no gimmicks, no novelty vocals or sound effects.  Just lovely music.

You can purchase the CD here.  Or you can find it on Facebook.

And . . . speaking of pleasures that won’t grow old quickly, the Holland-Coots Quintet has just released a new disc, a tribute to Fats Waller, THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL, with Marc Caparone, Evan Arntzen, Steve Pikal as the additional merry-makers.  I was at the sessions in Nashville in July 2017, and this band made thrilling music, which I wrote about here.  (Caution: HOT VIDEO ALERT.)

I will have more to say when the actual disc flutters into my mailbox.  And don’t let the title fool you: quantity purchases are not only legal, but medically-recommended.

May your happiness increase!