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Sweet Sue: The Music of Fats Waller -Volume 1 by Ralph Sutton & Friends

Fats Waller was a large man. And I’m not just talking about his celebrated obesity. He was huge in every way. The guy wrote over 400 songs during his 39 years. This would be quite a feet for someone living a monastic life-style, sequestered away some place in the remotest corner of the earth with no stimuli to distract them from churning out one charming stride-piano masterpiece after another. Lord knows where Fats got the time to write all these chestnuts, what with his already hyper-extended schedule of touring, chasing women, drinking, and chowing down. He did it all though. But see, that’s what this music is all about-being bigger, faster, drunker, wilder and sexier than the next cat who couldn’t carry your piano bench even if he begged you on both knees and promised to let you date his sister who could dance a jitterbug that would make a speakeasy doorman blush. It’s all about being larger than life.

Ralph Sutton and his men sound great playing this music. Waller’s spirit rings out with every note. What made this music so wildly successful in the 30s was Fats’ personality pushing out through the record grooves which could hardly accommodate his gargantuan spirit and it’s the personalities of this fine ensemble that make the music work today. This is a perfect example of a living tradition. Musicians who know a style as intimately as they know themselves, playing in a way that makes it all sound as natural as breathing. It’s not the studied sound of academics trying to recreate something long lost, but rather the sounds of invention in a language that’s been passed down human-to-human.

Each musician’s sound seems to have it’s own personality that leaps out of the speakers and walks (or swaggers) around your apartment.

Take Brian Ogilvie’s tenor saxophone for example. You wouldn’t want this guy’s smooth-as-syrup tone showing up at your house on a Saturday night to take your daughter out. It’s pretty obvious that curfews would be broken, to say the least. Check out the way Ogilvie opens his solo on "Lounging at the Waldorf." That long, smeared glissando is like some kind of lascivious leer at a flapper’s posterior. He’s not to be trusted. Give him a chance though. There’s a gentler side to the broad-shouldered tenor-man. On "Black and Blue," perhaps Waller’s most beautiful and expressive composition, Ogilvie turns in a tender performance that is this recording’s emotional apex.

Jon-Erik Kellso’s trumpet is equally distinctive and colorful. I could imagine Kellso’s sound sitting slump-shouldered at the bar, five minutes before downbeat, starring mournfully into the bottom of an empty rocks glass wondering what happened to that last drink. It’s a wonderful, slovenly sound full of spit and vinegar. Every time Kellso solos, I can’t help but wonder where this young guy (he was born in Detroit in the 60’s) learned to play as if he cut his teeth jamming in the salon of a New Orleans cathouse.

Moving into the rhythm section, Marty Grosz is featured as both a guitar soloist and vocalist. His vocals are charming in their similarity to Fats’ pitch and attitude innocent and bouncy, but with that subtle touch of naughtiness. Listen to his treatment of "I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." When he gets to that line about "kisses on the bottom", "I’ll be so glad I got ‘em," we’re pretty sure he’s talking about lipstick marks on a piece of paper.... but maybe not. Grosz’s guitar work on this CD is consistently creative and makes one realize that early rock n’ roll pioneers, like Chuck Berry, didn’t get their ideas from out-of-the-blue.

Frank Capp is probably as expressive a drummer as one is likely to encounter in an early-jazz setting. And man, can this guy play brushes. Capp has a veritable lexicon of brush sounds at his disposal. Sometimes it’s the hiss of the snake in Eden luring the listener to partake in some forbidden fruit. Other times it sounds like a lady (or is she?) slapping the face of would be suitor who just stepped out of line with a silk glove. Throughout this date he and bassist Dave Green push this band to higher levels of swing.

Finally, Ralph Sutton is a joy at the piano. It’s amazing how every note he plays on this recording tips it’s hat to Waller who was Sutton’s initial inspiration for taking up the piano without sounding derivative. This is what happens when an artist has truly internalized his influences and spends a lifetime forging them into a unique voice. Like Fats’, Sutton’s right hand is nothing short of debonair and his left hand kicks out a punching stride. He gives his soloists plenty of space to work, but also knows how to push them into a higher gear with an increasingly syncopated and energized left-hand. For a man approaching 80, Sutton can still pull you to the edge of your seat.

There isn’t enough space here to point out every magic put-a-smile-on-your-face moment on this CD. The recording quality is excellent throughout and the ensemble blends perfectly. This is great listening for fans of Waller’s music, stride aficionados, or newcomers to this classic style that helped shape American music from Duke Ellington to Jerry Lee Lewis.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ralph Sutton & Friends
  • CD Title: Sweet Sue: The Music of Fats Waller -Volume 1
  • Genre: Traditional / New Orleans
  • Year Released: 2000
  • Record Label: Nagel-Heyer Records
  • Musicians: Ralph Sutton (piano), Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Brian Ogilvie (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Marty Grosz (guitar, vocals), Dave Green (bass), Frank Capp (drums)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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