Everybody knows about fats: margarine (toxic), avocado (much better), Thomas Waller (salvation on the darkest days).
But since Fats Waller has been gone since December 1943, and all his recordings have been collected and issued on some six CD boxes (JSP Records), it falls to living pianists and singers to carry on and extend his joyous tradition.
One of the finest examples is a WALLER’ING AROUND, new compact disc by the hilariously gifted stride master / singer / entertainer Jeff Barnhart, recorded in February 2010.
The cover picture should give you an inkling that the mood of the CD is not somber, apropos for Fats and his world.
Jeff would have been a wonderfully funny entertainer even if Fats have never existed — any man who can write and sing a new couplet (approximately), “I want you to put your feets between my satin sheets,” is my hero.
These days, much of what is passed off as “stride piano” these days is either crisp but formal transcriptions of the records (you know who you are!) or uneven and bumpy, loud and fast — not the way the masters did it.
Jeff’s time is steady, his touch and dynamics are splendid, and he can improvise with great ingenuity and delicacy at top speed. And he improvises throughout. This isn’t a devoutly repressed repertory project, FATS IN HI-FI.
There’s a good deal of sly humor and rent party fun on this disc, but Jeff also recognizes Fats as another romantic, so the disc is full of tenderness. And Jeff understands Fats’ serious side as well. One of the high points of the delightfully varied disc is a seven-minute instrumental rendition of BLACK AND BLUE that begins with Jeff explaining this lovely mournful protest song.
Jeff is also a truly agile singer — his tenor captures much of Fats’ voice — not the shouting of asides over the band, but the yearning romanticism mixed with satire. It’s a particularly insinuating sound, and it never feels forced or mannered — perhaps because it is so close to Jeff’s speaking voice: expressive, amused.
All the Waller favorites are here — sometimes with the surprise of a verse I’d never heard (as in BLUE TURNING GRAY OVER YOU) — but the less-played numbers lift this disc up to the first rank.
There’s VALENTINE STOMP, dedicated to a Harlem house of pleasure, which Jeff both plays respectfully and improvises on; there’s the early composition (recorded by another newcomer named Bechet), WILD CAT BLUES, Jeff’s orchestral version of the 1927 ST. LOUIS SHUFFLE (first recorded by the Fletcher Henderson band), the joyous MIDNIGHT STOMP (with the lyrics!) and HOLD MY HAND (which Fats performed on the radio as a duet with his teacher James P. Johnson).
But best of all — a striding bit of wondrous Hot archaeology — is the premiere performance of a swinging Waller tune (again with hilarious lyrics) whose premise is that every time I get a new girlfriend, someone steals her away: EV’RY SWEETIE THAT I GET. I had to play it over several times before allowing myself to proceed to the next track.
Here are the songs: THE JOINT IS JUMPIN’ / HONEYSUCKLE ROSE / BLUE TURNING GRAY OVER YOU / VALENTINE STOMP / KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW / WILD CAT BLUES / EV’RY SWEETIE THAT I GET / SQUEEZE ME / ST. LOUIS SHUFFLE / LONESOME ME / CLOTHESLINE BALLET / AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ / BLACK AND BLUE / MIDNIGHT STOMP / HOLD MY HAND.
This one’s a keeper. Lovely sound; you won’t miss horns or a rhythm section; there are articulate, funny notes by Jeff, and it will make you laugh and feel even better than usual. It’s that fine Arabian stuff that your dreams are made of!
You can order this CD (it’s $20) directly from Jeff at his website: http://www.jeffbarnhart.com/cdsandorderform.html.
Pretend it’s your birthday.
AND, WHILE YOU’RE UP, GIVE A THOUGHT TO THE MUSICIANS WHO BRING US SO MUCH PLEASURE. CLICK HERE: ALL MONEY COLLECTED GOES TO THEM:
P.S. Let’s assume you’re out there saying, “Well, Michael, usually I trust your opinion, but I have never heard this Barnhart fellow. Why should I spring for yet another compact disc?” It’s a valid question — here’s Jeff playing VALENTINE STOMP in 2009, captured for us by the tireless Tom Warner:
Proof positive. And (slightly afield) search out “A BEAUTIFUL LADY IN BLUE” with drummer Danny Coots — nephew of J. Fred, who wrote the song, where Jeff swings out like nobody’s business. You’ll be hooked. I am.