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Fats Waller: If You Gotta Ask, You Ain’t Got It

Without available recordings on hand to excite and edify a current generation of listeners, even the established giants of jazz can lose their footing in the public’s estimation. To know them and love them, we must hear them.

As even producer Orrin Keepnews admits, this triple-disc sampler of Waller’s multifaceted art has its share of holes. Where’s “A Handful of Keys,” “If You’re a Viper” or “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew”? Waller enthusiasts can find their own omissions from the hundreds of sides that he cut from 1923 through 1943, the year of his premature death.

Yet, in the big picture, none of this much matters. What we have been given is a sampler, a selective overview that presents enough of a well-focused picture of a one-of-a-kind keyboardist, vocalist, composer and bandleader to make us appreciate Waller’s genius all over again.

Keepnews has divvied Waller’s work into three sections: his instrumental work, his revisions of popular song and his own songbook-each musical facet meriting its own disc. Stunning piano and organ work, delightful singing, cunning humor and spirited group interplay abound in jewels such as “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Numb Fumblin'” and “Loungin’ at the Waldorf.” Those gems, along with signature performances like “Your Feet’s Too Big,” majestically represent their period while also transcending it. Dan Morgenstern’s loving liner notes are, per usual, worth the price of the set alone.

If Keepnews’ picks don’t work for you, draw deeper from the Waller well. Mike Lipskin’s fine Centennial Collection of 2004 presents another equally subjective and incomplete Waller landscape. In the end, just be thankful there’s plenty of Fats out there to feast on.

Originally Published