A wild mix of styles are brought to the music of Fats Waller by the pianist Jason Moran and his collaborator MeShell Ndegeocello. A dance party that proves, again, that jazz boundaries are joyously crumbling.
Fats Waller ought to be on the minds of today's vanguard jazz musicians. These musicians, leaving behind the old jazz battles of the last decades of the 1900s, have been boldly finding artistic use and continuity with today's popular music forms. That's a practice that was common -- and respected -- in the early decades of jazz but became semi-verboten when jazz became an art form struggling for respect in the 1950s and '60s. That's much less the case today, with vanguard musicians mush as pianist Jason Moran using hip-hop and rural blues just as freely as he uses classic jazz and European classical music as inspiration for his art.
Fats Waller (1904-1943) was an astonishing serious talent, a young man dubbed "the black Horowitz" for his piano technique, the composer of hundreds of songs, both an artistic innovator and a blockbuster entertainer. Waller was a virtuoso and a comic at once -- the kind of combination that would later get no less a genius than Louis Armstrong considered a joke and an Uncle Tom. His art was popular and serious at once, though, without contradiction. A reexamination of his work and legacy is right on time.
All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller is a collaboration between Moran, a natural pianistic descendant of Waller, and MeShell Ndegeocello, a singer and electric bass player who has navigated the grey area between popular music (soul, hip -op, but really her own unique version of these forms) and jazz, whatever that word still means. The work was commissioned by the Harlem Stage in 2011, and Moran conceived of it as a dance party, an event that would reflect Waller's legacy as not just a musician but, in Moran's language, a "provocateur", "an MC... whose playing was so deep [that he] could sing and keep a running commentary of what was going on around him all at the same time." To those who call Gil Scot-Heron or the Last Poets the godfathers of hip-hop... meet Fats.
All Rise, then, seeks to provide a contemporary vision of Waller's music. And the challenge in doing so is not one born of the music seeming so old. Waller's music has been so resilient and popular for so long that there are plenty of recent versions of songs like "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Honeysuckle Rose", and "Jitterbug Waltz". The challenge for Moran and Ndegeocello is to refract the music in ways that make it sound more vibrant and alive than its modern jazz variants could. These tunes aren't so much alien as they are over-familiar. The question with All Rise is whether it can let us hear these tunes without a thousand piano lounge versions clouding our keener understanding.
To achieve this, Moran and Ndegeocello (along with producer Don Was, who is Blue Note's new top dog) have enlisted not only Moran's band ("Bandwagon"), but also a diverse array of talent including funk drummer Charles Haynes, several vocalists in addition to Ndegeocello, vanguard saxophonist Steve Lehman, and the engineer Bob Power, who helped to fashion the studio sound of hip-hop through his work with A Tribe Called Quest and the Roots.
And it's a joy, though as an album, it does come off as the kind of mixed-bag that theater pieces often do. The band and approach shifts from song to song, making All Rise feel inconsistent, like a mixtape that doesn't pay attention to transitions the way a good DJ should, but that's the way things go with something that was not conceived for just listening, perhaps. Mostly, this project is a revelation and a thrill. It succeeds in making something old/new into something newer/new.
So, here’s the ultimate Waller chestnut, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the top of the dance card, reconfigured absolutely. Moran has it arranged with a biting horn line out front that could have come from a funky M-Base record in the 1990s, underpinned by a syncopated Haynes drum groove and his own Rhodes electric piano working in sync with the horn line. When Ndegeocello enters with the lyric “No one to talk with, all by myself”, you realize that the melody has been rewritten and set over a simpler harmonic structure. The “chorus” (sung by Lisa Harris) becomes the repetition of the line “Ain’t misbehavin’ I’m savin’ my love for you, for you, for you” with those last two words sung to the two-note melody that has constituted the vamp bass line from the tune’s start. And it all locks together like a puzzle.
This is the first of five tracks that feature lead vocals — and four of the five are resounding, shout-it-from-the-hilltops classics.
“The Joint is Jumpin’” is another vocal for Ndegeocello, and the same rhythmic shift is heard here. It swings like crazy, with Mateen playing a gloriously busy bass part and Haynes keeping it sharp with a slightly military-sounding Latin groove, but the vocals articulate the title line like you’ve never heard before. Ndegeocello and Harris sing together like a soul-syncopated dream on the chorus, there’s a dreamy little interlude that could have been from one of the early Ndgeocello discs, and yet there is also a set of hip brass fills and a craggy and thrilling Moran solo on acoustic piano that ought to convince anyone with a doubt that jazz improvising is still a natural joy. Josh Roseman’s trombone solo flies out from this groove with ease. And there’s a even a good minute or more at the end where piano, horns, and Haynes’s driving groove just percolate for the benefit of your own feet. Wow, what a track.
The third Ndegeocello vocal is an even more amazing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”, appropriately dark and brooding. The singer is insinuating and personal, whispering a new take on the melody, while Thomas and Roseman growl low and sinister around her, Haynes playing slow funk and rattled hi-hat syncopations. Moran plays an atmospheric set of figures and chords, developing a motif that echoes and is counterpoint to the new vocal melody. This is a plain majestic rethinking of an already wonderful song, and when Ndegeocello alters the lyric a bit to say “Ain’t nobody’s business what we do”, it gets even more conspiratorial.
Lisa Harris also gets a lead vocal on the iconic “Honeysuckle Rose”, another imaginative resetting of an overplayed tune. Moran finds a new set of framing licks and a loping rhythm to start things off, and they are woven throughout. The piano darts into the lead in various spots to give this new take a stride-y feeling here and there, repeating the tune’s traditional main lick like it was an R&B motif. Thomas takes a muted solo, and everything moves into a wholly new section after two minutes that showcases how a smart arrangement can make this music deeply new. This is more a dancing fantasia on “Honeysuckle Rose” than it is yet another cover of an old tune.
“Two Sleepy People” is the strangest track by being, well, the straightest. Moran (on Wurlitzer electric piano here) and Mateen accompany Leron Thomas’s half-amateur vocal on the first and last chorus in a traditional jazz ballad style backed by some synth strings that just sound . . . cheesy is the word most young people would use. In the middle, there is a contemporary groove section with drums and a trumpet lead, cushioned by those “strings” -- an interlude that could have been on a GRP smooth jazz recording 20 years ago. Far be it for me to second-guess Jason Moran, but this track just doesn’t work . . . or fit.
That leaves six instrumental tracks that put Moran and his bands out front. “Jitterbug Waltz” is the most familiar of these tunes, and Moran again brilliantly updates a classic. He slows it down to a funky groove, giving it a brand-new gospel feeling along with a repeated lick that he created for this arrangement. At first you would not know that it is “Jitterbug” with its signature down-the-staircase melodic line. But there it is, emerging from a new space, hipper than ever, full of feeling, more wonderful for its transformation. And even more incredible is the decision, at the three-minute mark, to bring in an alto sax solo by Steve Lehman, a joyous cascade of feeling against a grooving backbeat and a set of gospel-inspired chords that is all as ecstatic as anything you’ve heard in jazz lately. It is take-your-breath-away good.
Several other instrumental tracks are more “traditional” while still being refracted through the cubist musical language of Moran’s recent work. “Lulu’s Back in Town” gets a more traditional jazz treatment by Bandwagon, Moran’s regular trio with Nasheet Waits on drums and Tarus Mateen, who is the bass player across the board on All Rise. What’s great about Bandwagon, though, is how the band uses a traditional swing feeling yet still abstracts the tune by altering the rhythm of the melody slightly to emphasize the syncopation at the heart of its initial repetition. The way Moran articulates this repetition, it gets that slightly jagged, clipped syncopation that we recognize as the new kind of “swing” that characterizes hip-hop rhythm. Ingenious. The closing fusing of “Sheik of Araby”/“I Found a New Baby” works similarly, with melodies cracked up and re-shifted. “Yacht Club Swing” gets a complex polyrhythm, a kind of fast Latin rumba that’s rattled out with intensity to support a melody expressed by Moran on Rhodes and Leon Thomas’s muted trumpet. It feels like amped-up dance music that will push you to a limit.
As All Rise winds down (after the last of several studio fades that left me a bit cold), a listener wants more. If it is a dance party, then I still have more energy and more hunger for the groove. But, more than that, I want more of this kind of “jazz” -- more jazz that reaches back to the tradition and reaches forward toward the new simultaneously. I want more of hearing vanguard artists ignore boundaries, working with artists you wouldn’t have expected, who come from what might have seemed a different part of the cultural divide.
All Rise proves yet again that the cultural divide, at least in “jazz”, has crumbled and means little now -- and that’s something to get on your feet and cheer (or dance) about. All rise, indeed.