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!