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Exploring Music: Meditative Fats-- Dick Hyman Plays Music of Fats Waller

The MHS Review 393 Vol. 11 No. 15, 1987

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Spencer Bennett


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A casual acquaintance with Fats Waller elicits the portrait of a giant of a man with huge appetites for food, drink, sex, and music. Immensely popular in an America suffering the Depression, the image of Waller in the 1930s was that of a happy black musical genius who could convey the good things of life through a light romantic melody like ''Honeysuckle Rose'' and the humorous side of our fantasies in the parody "Your Feet's Too Big.'' Waller himself did much to encourage this stereotype. He had no head for finance, often selling original compositions for 50 dollars or less to cover outstanding debts. Although he had one, he was hardly the family man; and his consumption of alcohol and food continues to be legend.

Ultimately he recorded 600 sides, many under the RCA label. While the majority of his records are consum­mate jazz and the stuff of artistry, a lot of them are confounded novelty tunes which survive as art only because Fats had the good sense to transform them into parody through his verbal antics and great pianistic talent.

There is another more poignant and reflective side to Thomas "Fats" Waller and that is what you will hear here. It was said of him that if the piano represented the "stomach" of his music, the theater organ represented his "heart." That seems strange for a man who was the student of the great stride piano player James P. Johnson. If anything, these huge in­struments, prevalent in the movie palaces of the day, are inhibiting to the left-handed rhythm so necessary to the emerging jazz of swing. Their traction response is slow and their mechanics make the stop breaks so in­herent in jazz difficult to execute with precision. Yet it is true that Waller had a particular passion for these organs and spent as much time practicing in the solitude of lonely auditoriums as he could, while entertaining large au­diences on other occasions. (It was at the keyboard of the Lincoln Theater organ that Count Basie first heard and was awed by Fats' skill.)

Whatever technical precision Waller gave up was, however, more than compensated by the huge sounds, the complex textures, the range of tones, and most of all the capacity to create a lyrical pensive at­mosphere denied him in the popular demands of his piano playing. Through the music he composed on organ (and the piano rolls of his play­ing transposed for organ, as in an earlier fascinating MHS release, LP 493 7Y /Cassette 693 72) we are aware of a much more solemn, pensive facet to Waller, one that is as lonely as the blues, although he never really wrote in the blues mode.

Dick Hyman does credit to Waller's dark side on this recording, especial­ly on "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue," "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," and "Squeeze Me." The first, with its not-so-subtle reference to race, is played at a dirge tempo and is full of a massive lamenting sonori­ty. The second is definitely an entrea­ty to a new love as Hyman lingers over phrases in the introduction. And in ''Squeeze Me'' Hyman slows down the pace from the original piano roll, lengthens the bass line, and moves the melody to the middle register, giving this much more of the feel of a ballad. For those who want their Waller once over lightly there are plenty of other cuts to satisfy them here, but I am im­pressed by the meditative nature of these interpretations.

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