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by Seth Colter Walls

March 19, 2014

Late Night Piano: Fats Waller

by Seth Colter Walls  |  March 19, 2014

What's better company than piano music in the after-work hours? We say nothing, and so we're giving you a series covering key piano innovators, which you can follow here.

Odds are you know a bit of Fats Waller's music, even if you're not a confirmed jazz-head. The singer-songwriter-keyboardist was one of the first hit-makers in history. "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Ain't Mishbehavin'" contain melodies that have sneaked into the American collective unconscious. His vocal routines -- as on "I'm Crazy About My Baby"" -- remain touchstones of early pop. And his sly, innovative approach to the organ has likewise sneaked into artifacts of culture as far afield of jazz as David Lynch's Eraserhead soundtrack.

Whether or not you know a lot about the man, our playlist offers entry points into many sides of Waller's artistry. Click play on our mix, and you'll start off with his early solo piano take on "Honeysuckle Rose." The attack switches up from one second to the next, as if to say "no matter how you play my song, it's instantly memorable." He breaks into a wild, Harlem-stride bounce in the final seconds, showing off his affection for innovators like James P. Johnson and Art Tatum (both of whom we've previously heard in the Late Night Piano series).

Though Waller wasn't as acrobatic a player as those greats, he did boast a virtuoso's touch, which you can hear on the suave trills of "Numb Fumblin'." Other strong piano solos of his from the late '20s and 1930s -- like "Blue Black Bottom," "Handful of Keys" and "Smashing Thirds" -- alternate in our playlist with vocal tunes, such as "Lulu's Back in Town." And on "The Joint is Jumpin'," you get a taste of Waller the actor, as he impersonates rowdy crowd members and then throws on a siren in order to conjure up a police raid. Also including some of his first forays into organ-playing ("Jitterbug Waltz" and his version of "Saint Louis Blues") as well as his six-movement "London Suite," our mix has you covered. Enjoy!

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