At the outset, Thomas Waller seemed destined to become a classical pianist. His grandfather was an accomplished violinist, and when he was a young child, his teacher, who was the musical director at his Baptist church, made sure Waller knew Bach. However once he began his apprenticeship under James P. Johnson, one of the originators of stride piano, Fats was born. Unfortunately, his life was cut short at just 39 years of age in 1943 before his personality had a chance to fully shine in movies and television.
An amazingly talented composer and performer, Waller has been the focus of a number of retrospective releases over the years. This new three-CD box set from Bluebird/Legacy does a great job of showcasing Waller’s talents by having each disc focus on one aspect. Disc One showcases Waller playing his own compositions. Disc Two displays his gifts on the keys by offering all instrumentals, although there’s no surprise that he can’t remain completely silent throughout. “Loungin’ At The Waldorf” finds him talking throughout like he’s the hotel maitre d’.
Disc Three finds Waller interpreting Tin Pan Alley songs. There is so much material to sift through that in the liner notes, legendary jazz producer Orrin Keepnews, who compiled the set, states, “Since I made all of the selections, I inevitably have not included all of your Waller favorites. As a matter of fact, I haven’t even had room to include all of mine!”
Every single track swings whether Waller is playing an unaccompanied piano solo or His Rhythm, a five- or six-piece combo, backs him. His playing and singing are perfect accompaniment for each other because one augments the other so well. Separately, they each would have been a gift to the world of music. Combined in one artist, they elevate Waller to the exalted heights of jazz legends, like his contemporaries Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Disc One is a mix of his popular hits, such as “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” “Our Love Was Meant To Be,” and “Aint Misbehavin’,” with lesser-known songs. It opens with his classic, “Honeysuckle Rose,” one of many songs inspired by the love of his life, Anita Rutherford. While he could write sweet love songs for proper ladies, he could also write bawdy numbers for the men. “Old Grand Dad” sounds like a sweet number about his “pappy’s pappy” but could also be a sly nod to the whiskey of the same name. “All That Meat And No Potatoes” is about a full-figured gal. “Ain’t Nothing To It” is the most suggestive number of the bunch. Recorded in 1941 and not released until 1990, it contained the lyrics: “Do you knock yourself out every night?” and “You don’t want love/you want an all-day sucker.” Its opening line is and the original title was “Gettin’ Much Lately?”
Disc 2 opens with the oldest track in the set. From 1926, Waller plays the pipe organ on W.C. Handy’s “St Louis Blues.” More of his work on that instrument can be heard when he plays with his mentor Johnson on piano during to two tracks attributed to the geographically incorrect name Louisiana Sugar Babes. They had been working together in the pit for the Broadway show Keep Shufflin’. “Sippi,” which Johnson co-wrote, was from the show’s score. Waller opens with a playful riff from “Way Down Upon The Swanee River.”
All you need to hear Waller’s greatness is his unaccompanied solo performance of “Numb Fumblin’.” It’s amazing what both his hands are able to do. He covers a lot of territory in less than three minutes. A total of ten selections are given the solo piano treatment, including “Aint Misbehavin’,” which he plays on a Hammond organ. It is one of two songs that appear in the set in multiple versions. The other is an upbeat, big band version of “Honeysuckle Rose” from “A Jam Session at Victor” that includes Bunny Berrigan on trumpet and Tommy Dorsey on trombone.
Disc Three presents Waller & His Rhythm covering the songs and artists of Tin Pan Alley on well-known standards like “Dinah,” “The Sheik Of Araby,” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter.” The latter, which came out in 1935, went onto to become Waller’s biggest hit. It’s not the one I would have guessed because Waller’s exuberance is restrained in both his voice and music.
A big part of Waller’s appeal is in his sense of humor and he provides many funny asides throughout his work. On “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You,” he defends himself against wife-stealing charges hurled at him by bandleader trombonist Jack Teagarden. “This Joint is Jumpin'” has a reenactment of a fight breaking out at a club, including a woman screaming, police whistles, and the helpful suggestion about not giving your right name. He also provides useful advice about recycling in “Cash For You Trash.”
The liner notes provide a brief introduction by Keepnews, a detailed discography of the 66 songs, and a well-crafted treatise that is broken into three sections: an biography of Waller, two smaller essays about the role and members of His Rhythm, and analysis of every track by six-time Grammy Award winner for Best Album Notes Dan Morgenstern, a jazz historian and author since 1947.