The opening track on this set, "Havin' a Ball," builds to such intensity within less than three minutes that it is somewhat baffling. It is difficult to tell when the band makes its move from marking time in a diffident, snoozy fashion to building up the momentum for an explosive finale, but such is the way with Fats Waller. A bit past the midway point on the first five volumes of his music compiled for reissue in the '70s by the French RCA, this set covers band activities from 1936 through to the end of the decade. With the exception of one switch-up in bassists, the same musicians play on every track, indicating a band lineup that was developing the solidity of good sculpture. The same goes for the approach the leader has the band take to practically every song. If it doesn't need fixing, why mess around? The concept combines so many perfect elements that it seems artistically invincible. Each new song that is thrown at the band -- some of them Tin Pan Alley toss-offs that were hardly worth the paper they were printed on, others the masterworks of great songwriters -- is dissected according to this master plan. There is a strange intro of some kind, with the opening seconds of "Please Keep Me in Your Dreams" like something off an early Art Ensemble of Chicago side. There is the establishing of the song itself, Waller barely restraining himself from flights of verbal fancy, obscure asides, and shouted orders for food and liquor but always beginning each song as if he fully intends to play it straight. And there is the final overriding of the song in a blaze of swinging and wailing, as if each of these ditties was a gate to be inevitably crashed. The band is so incredibly tight that transitions and surges of power happen at the flick of the wrist. "Slick" Jones is just as good a drummer as any that worked with Waller, keeping up a timely patter on the brushes while expertly controlling the dynamics. The contrast in the latter department is much more marked than on earlier recordings by this artist's bands, revealing a group of players that were becoming more and more expert even though working within a familiar formula. "Nero" is a masterpiece, not only a hilarious song but an incredible display of the band's control of dynamics and swing. Sequencing on the album plays up Waller's versatility by following this kind of showpiece track with the easygoing intro of "The Meanest Thing You Ever Did Was Kiss Me," the pianist never playing much above medium volume. His left-hand stride piano figures continually enforce the basslines in the rhythm section, while he sometimes repeats trills in the right end as if waiting for the world to end. The horn players are Herman Autrey on trumpet and Gene Sedric on clarinet and tenor sax, two of the most familiar sidemen from the Waller discography. Both men play enjoyably, never failing to find something of harmonic interest in the various chord changes they take on. On tenor, Sedric floats nicely above the drummer's brushwork and the pianist, who often supports this horn with rinkytinky high-end patterns. Guitarist Al Casey allows the leader some breathing room with his short but effective solos, Waller knowing that if he doesn't get out of the way the stringman would be completely buried in the chordal avalanche. On some numbers, the saxophonist plays feathery little phrases as accompaniment to the guitar solo, a tremendously effective move. Autrey is often the goose-stepper, piling up the energy of a number with blasts of volume. "Beat It Out" contains not only great drum breaks, but almost startling use of recorded handclaps. Although part of an extensive reissue set, this particular volume could almost pass as a greatest hits package, as it contains the numbers "Hold Tight" and "The Joint Is Jumpin." Waller's vocals are brilliant, often just from the textural standpoint. He displays expert control of his improvised piano introductions, as if slowly fanning a fire he inevitably sets the stage for his vocal entrances, often accompanied by wicked little patter from the horns. The great remastering makes this an obvious choice for any jazz collector. The sound of each instrument is always perfectly clear, and the inventive recording gimmicks -- blowing whistles, slamming doors, and so forth, not to mention the Waller range of vocal mannerisms -- literally jump out of the speakers.
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AllMusic Review by Eugene Chadbourne