Chris Hopkins is surely a fine pianist. Oddly enough, for the purposes of this recording he may be too fine. Hopkins' clear, bell-like sound and precision of attack would perfectly suit interpretations of Debussy's preludes or Mozart's sonatas. However, for the rough and tumble frenzy of stride piano, I prefer an approach a little, well, rough and tumble. After perusing a hand full of tracks off Hopkins' "Daybreak," a CD of musical tributes to the great stylists of stride piano, I decided to check in with my favorite: Fats Waller.
Listening to Waller's London Suite of 1939, I was reminded immediately of what makes me dig this stuff. Waller plays fast and he plays like he means business. With his left hand bouncing away propulsively like a frog sauced on bathtub gin, his right hand scampers down the upper register with abandon. It's the perfect musical illustration of a frenzied shopper in Piccadilly Circus, and it swings harder than a Harlem rent party.
Sure, maybe Fats hits a couple of clams, but who cares? I wish Hopkins would let loose like that on these sides. What better tribute to the legacy of stride than to capture its essence and energy? Hopkins' technique is noteworthy but he doesn't show it off enough. His tempos all seem to settle around medium. The stride piano tradition was based on "cutting contests" - all-night battles to decide who had bragging rights and commanded the most respect. This was aggressive stuff. They didn't call Willie Smith "The Lion" for nothing.