Jazz Sets Make Great (Late) Stocking Stuffers

The Kansas City Star’s Back To Rockville blog

By Joel Francis

Two excellent jazz collections slipped into the bins quietly during the holiday rush last year.

“If You Got To Ask, You Ain’t Got It,” is three comprehensive discs of pure fun from Fats Waller. The set is comprised of 66 cuts from 1926 to 1943 than find the jolly, indomitable pianist in solo, quintet and big band settings. The included 100-page book contains an excellent biography that puts the songs into context, and a history of Fats’ various recording groups and sidemen.

But the true feast is the music, and what a feast it is. One disc focuses on Fats’ work out of the Tin Pan Alley songbook and includes his joyful interpretations of “Dinah,” “Two Sleepy People” and “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business.” These songs have been, and continue to be, performed as a rite of passage for jazz musicians, and with good reason. It’s a fair bet, though, that no one has infused such glee and humor into their readings. One or two verses from any of these songs are guaranteed to chase the blues away and bring a smile to the listeners’ face.

The second disc finds Fats in instrumental, and often solo, mode and was the most revelatory to me. Fats’ organ work on “St. Louis Blues” blurs the lines between classical and jazz, and gospel chording obvious on several other songs point to the path Ray Charles would later take. In fact, one could easily look at this set as one of the many birth places of soul music.

Many of Fats’ most recognizable tunes – “Honeysuckle Rose,” “All That Meat and No Potatoes” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” – can be found on the disc titled “Fats Waller Sings and Plays Fats Waller.” At 22 tracks, the disc just dips its toe in the water of Fats’ songwriting (the accompanying book says he wrote more than 400 songs), but like everything else here it’s all top-shelf.

To the uninitiated – which I’ll confess included me – “If You Got To Ask” is a great entry point to the world of Fats Waller. Longtime fans will no doubt enjoy having a great cross-section of the man’s works in one place.

Most of my familiarity with Fats’ came from Louis Armstrong’s 1955 tribute album “Satch Plays Fats.” Two songs from that album are found on Time Life’s “The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong” collection. Armstrong has been collected and compiled literally hundreds of times, but what sets this entry apart is its DVD. With performances spanning four decades, it is a true delight to see Satchmo perform hits like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Sleepy Time Down South” and “Mack the Knife.” Those songs are all present alongside 37 other well-known tracks like “What A Wonderful World,” “Blueberry Hill” and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” on the two CDs that round out the set. There’s nothing from the Hot Five or Hot Seven ensembles here, but it’s just as well: true Satchmo fans will need at least one disc devoted exclusively to this period. The rest of his career, and material from the Verve, Decca, Columbia and RCA labels are all here, though.

If you’ve already got a decent, multi-disc Armstrong collection, it may not be worth your money to pick this one up, but fans looking for that first Armstrong purchase would do well to steer toward this collection if only for the DVD.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of both these collections, aside from the music, is the price. Both may be found online for about $30, and while it may be too late to request them as stocking stuffers, there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself.

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