The music of Fats Waller is a heavenly and devilish marriage of melody and rhythm. The more complicated it gets, the more effortless it sounds. He always sounds like he's having a preposterously good time, and it's contagious in the extreme.
Box-set producer Orrin Keepnews performs beautifully, faced with the daunting task of representing an output like Fats' with a 3-disc set, 66 tracks from 1926-1943. Disc One features the songs of the immortal artist, either with his quintet Fats Waller and His Rhythm, or the expanded group (it was the big band era), Fats Waller and His Orchestra. Disc Two spotlights the prodigious instrumental powers of the legend, on his songs and the songs of many others, "Strictly Instrumental." Disc Three is called "Fats Waller Sings and Plays Around With Tin Pan Alley," where he covers the classic tunes of the day in his inimitable style.
Inimitable because it sprang from his unequalled prowess on stride piano, an uncanny sense of time, and an indefatigable sense of humor. His person and his persona were larger than life. He squeezed every drop out of life, and apparently every bottle he could lay his hands on. He drank scotch for breakfast, which he called "liquid ham and eggs." You can listen to a free download of Fats singing "The Reefer Song" here. Eudora Welty used Fats as the subject of a story, "Powerhouse." You can hear writer Mark Huddle doing a fine reading thereof, here.
Waller was a huge hit in his day, which ended very prematurely, and just before he probably would have been a big TV star. He appeared in a couple of movies (I just bought Stormy Monday, starring Lena Horne and Fats in a show-stealing cameo role, for five bucks on eBay) but no doubt would have seen much greater cinematic action, had his life not been cut so short at a tragic 39 years from hard living and a rigorous touring schedule that ended in a late night fit of bronchial pneumonia. Even so, he left behind over 400 songs and hundreds of classic recordings.
The scholarly and entertaining liner notes by jazz author Dan Morgenstern are priceless. This is history. One of the must-have box sets, definitely. • Frank Goodman