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7th April 2017: Available now: ‘Waller’ by Mark Lewandowski with Liam Noble and Paul Clarvis + tour dates

 

Thomas Wright ‘Fats’ Waller was a true entertainer; a New York trailblazer of his time (1920s to early 1940s), turning out hundreds of songs including those which would become established standards, such as ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and ‘Jitterbug Waltz’. A jocular, larger-than-life character, his Harlem stride piano and gritty voice were key to a distinctive sound which would inform the jazz of subsequent generations, with solid showtime melodies ensuring its longevity.

Strongly maintaining the integrity of Fats Waller’s music while looking afresh at its present-day possibilities, English double bassist Mark Lewandowski embarked on this concept with clear intent: “I wanted to approach it with respect. Fats’ music is frequently loud, exuberant, even obnoxious at times, as well as wistful and elegant; so I really wanted to strip it down – and, with that in mind, I automatically thought of Liam Noble and Paul Clarvis (their 2009 duo album, Starry Starry Night, has long been a great inspiration to me). As a drummer, Paul demonstrates such great poise and economy, using only brushes throughout the whole of what was a particularly relaxed recording session, whilst Liam’s playful, unpredictability at the piano is perfect for this” (he has skilfully reworked the music of many artists, including Dave Brubeck, Bud Powell… even Elgar). “For the three of us, the experience of improvising so conversationally and intimately felt remarkably equal, and became more of an ongoing commentary rather than a straightforward reinterpretation. Nothing was fixed, the shackles were removed – so I loved the spontaneity and the vulnerability, as well as Liam’s and Paul’s wry take on things.”

With authentically-sampled historical introductions occasionally reinforcing the context, Waller’s eleven tracks unfold organically from the slenderest of wireframes. As Lewandowski says: “Fats would never have written any of those things down; if he composed a new tune, he’d go over to them and play it from the piano.” A similar approach here affords each of the musicians the freedom to respond in their own way while also intertwining their various strands of ideas, so ‘Lulu’s Back in Town’ emerges and then reappears from the trio’s enthusiastically percussive ‘chat’. ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead… Suzannah!!’ fuses together two Fats originals, its countrified bass phrasing sparingly embellished by Clarvis’ irregular snare patterns before Noble runs headlong into it with characteristically oblique swing. Another astute pairing results in ‘It’s a Sin to Write a Letter’, followed by Lewandowski’s animated bass solo ‘Have a Little Dream on Me’; and ‘Blue Because of You’ quicksteps to dashing bass and shuffling brushes as Noble shrugs off its melancholy origins.

Flirtatious favourites ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ and ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ are typically mischievous, nay impetuous, with each player lying in wait to jump off the others’ ideas; ‘Jitterbug Waltz’s familiar descending phrases are avidly seized upon by the ever-inventive imaginings of Noble; and both ‘Cinders’ and ‘Fair and Square in Love’ are deliciously and mesmerisingly held back, the latter hinting at a cool Motown ballad vibe towards its close.

Mark Lewandowski’s final, sung/whistled track – ‘Surprise Ending’ (Jelly Roll Morton’s resigned ‘Why’) – whimsically nods to Waller’s personable, socially-relevant reflections on the mundanity of life, as well as his popular showmanship from the piano. It might even offer a glimpse of future spin-off projects: “We’ve all studied early jazz alongside our more contemporary projects, and everything I do is very heavily informed by the Black-American tradition – it’s how I first fell in love with this music. So it’s been a great way to focus on Fats’ output; and I can even envisage some continuity in us exploring other historical artists in the same way. You can’t hide behind this music, so we wanted it to be as honest as possible, based on our own instincts. We’re using our collective influences of the past to inform how we improvise as contemporary musicians – and I hope, for listeners, it’ll be a gateway to the wider, colorful world of Fats Waller.”