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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Aki Takase - Aki Takase Plays Fats Waller at Babylon Berlin 2009 (Jazzwerkstatt, 2020) ***(*)


By Stephen Griffith

It seems like fate dictated that this digital only release be made. While her husband, Alexander von Schlippenbach, has doggedly explored the Thelonious Monk catalogue through both solo piano and the Monk’s Casino quartet recordings, Aki Takase has likewise put her stamp on Fats Waller’s music with slight variations of this core group of drummer Paul Lovens, Rudi Mahall on bass clarinet (also a Monk’s Casino member), trombonist Nils Wogram and Eugene Chadbourne on guitar/banjo and vocals. While the Monk’s Casino group specialized in performances of all Monk compositions, innovatively rearranged and mashed together over the course of an evening, this recording is more closely related to the first generation AACM group Air, consisting of Henry Threadgill and the late Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall, and their penchant for playing ragtime favorites in concerts and documented in all of Air Lore and “Chicago Breakdown” on 80° Below ‘82. And to put this live date in a more specific context, most of these songs are available in a 2003 studio recording on Enja under Takase’s name, Plays “Fats” Waller, adding Thomas Heberer on trumpet to the current group, and a 2004 JazzFest Berlin performance on Jazzwerkstatt including Heberer but no Wogram trombone. Only the current set ending brief “Two Sleepy People” isn't on the previous recordings.

Having established all that, you're probably wondering how the music is. Pretty good and a lot of fun. Waller’s music has been an integral part of the 20th century American songbook (I remember being confused as a teen hearing “Hold Tight” and “Your Feet's Too Big” on a Chubby Checker twist album) and always had a comic component producing the perfect setting for Chadbourne’s zany vocals (at one point in “Ain't Misbehaving” channeling Blonde on Blonde era Bob Dylan) as well as his excellent string work. Takase’s stride work is predictably excellent and Wogram’s blaring trombone adds a suitably brash element missing from the earlier live date. “Handful of Keys” is a piano/bass clarinet duet romp in all three settings with each being sufficiently different to not make comparing them side by side tedious. At times it seems that Lovens’ talents are being underutilized into a straight timekeeping function until “Way Down South Where the Blues Began” allows him to provide some creatively disruptive coloration and the shared intro with Takase on “Viper’s Drag" likewise loosens things up.

Although this covers familiar territory it's certainly worth hearing, both for unfamiliar listeners and existing aficionados.