Thursday, September 3, 2009

September 3: Fats Waller, "Ain't Misbehavin'"

Artist: Fats Waller
Album: Ain't Misbehavin'
Year: 1929-1940 (recorded), 1995 (released)
Label: various (recordings), ASV/Living Era (compilation)

Way back at the beginning of modern music; before jazz, before swing, before Robert Johnson, there was one man who was making music unlike anyone else in the world. Blending together the showmanship and humor of vaudeville with absolutely amazing piano playing skills, there was one man who was ready to take over the world with his music, Fats Waller. It is Waller's style of playing, as well as his legendary stage antics that have had an influence on nearly every style of music that followed. Having played piano since the age of six, Waller studied with many of the finest players, including Leopold Godowsky and Carl Bohm, and this is why, even though playing jovial tunes, his musicianship is absolutely superb. His backing bands were always equally as talented, and one of the most significant aspects of Waller that set him aside from the rest was his ability to write his own, brilliant compositions. Whether he was penning upbeat, somewhat humorous vocal numbers, or one of his fantastic instrumentals, every one of Waller's original pieces is truly amazing, and many of them have become cornerstones in the development of many genres that formed after his time from jazz to country. Presenting some of the greatest moments of his musical career, and highlighting Waller's best years, the 1995 collection, Ain't Misbehavin' stands as a phenomenal, historical musical document as well as one of the most enjoyable collections of music ever made.

Ain't Misbehavin' features a collection of Fats Waller recordings primarily made between 1929 and 1940, and a majority of the tracks come from four separate recording sessions over that time period. As has been stated many times before, one of the biggest problems with artists who recorded before the rise of vinyl is the fact that they have a myriad of seemingly scattered recording sessions for a variety of different labels. Due to there not yet existing a market for full length albums, artists like Fats Waller almost exclusively recorded single sides or 78's. Therefore, it is pretty much impossible to single out a full album, and one must turn to the seemingly endless collections of his recordings. While a majority of these collections are haphazardly put together at best, Ain't Misbehavin' separates itself from the rest by two primary aspects. First, the recordings are all in their original, mono format, and this keeps the rich sound intact. Secondly, the producers behind the collection decided that, instead of taking sub-par recordings, they simply took all of Waller's best ensemble recordings, and then dropped half a dozen of his most amazing instrumentals to break up the others. The final product is both a fantastic introduction, as well as a perfect cross-section of all of Fats Waller's work, and is truly the ideal Waller collection to own.

Due to the fact that the songs found on Ain't Misbehavin' are taken from a variety of different recording sessions, it is very difficult to identify what artists played on a particular track, especially because a majority of these players were likely session musicians. However, one thing that remains consistent throughout all of the recording sessions is that each musician plays brilliantly, and Waller shows himself to be one of the finest band leaders in history. The muted trumpet that is found on a majority of the songs gives the songs a distinctively "ragtime" feel, and the passages found on songs like "Sugar Rose" and "Everybody Loves My Baby (But My Baby Don't Love Nobody But Me)" are nothing short of phenomenal. Combined with meandering clarinets, the various musicians combine their talents to make the songs have their signature upbeat, jovial mood. On some of the slower numbers, Waller features crooning, almost lulling alto saxophone playing, and this also enhances the mood of those songs. Throughout the album, the drums never fail to bounce brilliantly, and it is often the chemistry between Waller and the percussion that truly makes the songs swing. On various tracks found on Ain't Misbehavin', Waller also incorporates acoustic guitars, and the combination of the guitar over the brass and woodwind playing is truly unique, and stands as a testament to the brilliant talents Waller had as a composer.

With his fantastic piano playing and the manner in which he approached the lyrics, there have been few musicians in history worthy of being named in the same breath as Fats Waller. Composing over four hundred original sounds before his untimely death in 1943, Waller is responsible for countless American musical standards, as well as serving as the inspiration for many other artist endeavors, most notably, the Tony Award winning musical, Ain't Misbehavin'. Waller's piano playing is nothing short of extraordinary, and whether he is playing slower, winding melodies, or lightning fast solos, his performances are always fantastic. On songs like "Handful Of Keys," one is truly left in awe of his phenomenal musical abilities. When Fats Waller starts singing, the amount of enjoyment he gets from performing is immediately clear, and on every song, Waller shows what it means to be a true entertainer. Sometimes cool and clear, other times gritty and gruff, Waller's voice is never anything short of perfect and distinct on every song, and his approach to singing had a profound impact on later singers, most notably, the great Louis Armstrong. One song that stands out on Ain't Misbehavin' is the vocal duet, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." Taken from a session from London in 1938, the song features a stunning performance by songstress Adelaide Hall, who along with Josephine Baker, was one of the most popular singers in Europe at the time. The contrast between Hall's sweet signing and Waller's spoken asides make the song a true masterpiece, and the almost circus-like organ playing the background turns the song into a stunning sound that is truly special to experience.

When one examines nearly all of the music that came after him, it is almost impossible to find a performer or genre that didn't in some way borrow from the music of Fats Waller. A truly unique musical talent, Waller played an integral role in the transition of music from vaudeville acts to the more modern, formal musical performance style that remains to this day. Recording an immeasurable number of sessions over his career, Waller remains one of the most heavily recorded artists in history, and he contributed countless songs that are now considered "traditional." Backed by fantastic musicians on every track, Waller is free to show off his undeniably amazing piano playing skills, and many of his instrumental compositions remain largely unrivaled in their high level of musical aptitude. The amiable, often funny style in which Fats Waller sings continues to make him one of the most endearing performers ever, and the pure joy he brings on every song resonates to this day. Truly embodying the term "entertainer," it is nearly impossible to find any artist that hasn't in some way borrowed from the legacy of Fats Waller, and he remains one of, if not the most important artists in the entire history of recorded music. While there are countless compilations of his music available, most suffer from lack of effort or musical knowledge by those compiling the songs. Standing far above the mountains of compilations of the music of Fats Waller is the 1995 release, Ain't Misbehavin', and the album perfectly portrays the best music of Waller's career and clearly shows why he was such an unparalleled, brilliant musician.

Standout tracks: "Ain't Misbehavin'," "This Joint Is Jumpin'," and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love."

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