Anyone who's fallen in love with Fats Waller's music and wants to delve a bit deeper than "greatest hits" should explore what young Mr. Waller managed to achieve on phonograph records during the 1920s. American labels have been frustratingly slow to release material from this fascinating period in Waller's artistic evolution, despite the fact that he began recording at the age of 18, a full 12 years before the first Fats Waller & His Rhythm sessions initiated his fairly rapid rise to fame. Two piano solos from 1922 grant listeners an exciting glimpse of a solidly able young Waller, fresh from his personal training under James P. Johnson's wing. These two solos belong at the head of any Fats Waller piano anthology, yet they didn't make it onto Bluebird's Turn on the Heat, an otherwise excellent double CD mainly devoted to the commercially issued Victor solos from 1927-1941.
Much of the material on Classics 664 consists of female vocals (mostly blues, a few topical jazz novelties, and a somber pair of spirituals) accompanied by Waller's piano. The art of accompanying was an essential component of the Harlem stride pianist's job description, and Waller did it as skillfully as James P. Johnson. Alberta Hunter's duet with Waller is one of the best examples here, along with two titles featuring the amazing Rosa Henderson. Even the sleepier numbers featuring less-punchy vocalists are still worth absorbing and appreciating. There's a very rare example of Porter Grainger taking a vocal on Waller's "In Harlem's Araby" and a pair of funny duets featuring Sara Martin and Clarence Williams. "Squabbling Blues" must be rare indeed, as the original 78 rpm platter used in this compilation has a very rough start and even skips briefly -- -collectors expect this sort of thing from the Document label, but never from Classics. Fortunately, the song is so satisfying, one quickly forgets the technical foibles.
But the main reason to obtain a copy of this CD is for the two titles featuring Clarence Williams and his friend Clarence Todd on kazoos, with Waller's sure-footed piano and an eccentric percussionist named Justin Ring (he shows up on certain Eddie Lang sessions from the late '20s). "West Indies Blues," in particular, is the prize in this package; the sound of two grown men unashamedly wailing away on their kazoos is guaranteed to help prevent listeners from taking reality too seriously. A must for collectors and a healthy experience for all who are interested in early jazz.