The mere announcement of a new Fat Babies album should inspire most readers of The Syncopated Times to run out and buy it. They are by any measure one of the best jazz bands in the world and have been for some time now. Their latest album captures yet another high point for the band, extended here to eight members with the addition of reedman Jonathan Doyle.
All the players are consummate musicians who have long moved beyond Chicago to national and international prominence in the hot jazz and swing scenes. The core members are cornetist Andy Schumm, Pianist Paul Asaro, Dave Bock on trombone, Alex Hall on drums, Beau Sample on bass, and Johnny Donatowicz on banjo and guitar.
You’ll spot many of these musicians in other Chicago groups like the Cellar Boys and on their own at international festivals and projects like Whitley Bay and the Hot Jazz Alliance. The Fat Babies though are almost unique in having now had four albums released on the famous Delmark Label. With all due respect to Rivermont, who released a Cellar Boys album last year, and other house labels of the trad jazz world the reach and credibility brought by Delmark is a great thing for our music. If we are to chose one band to represent what traditional jazz is to the wider world we could do no better than The Fat Babies.
I spend so much time talking up the merits of records I find above average and perfectly enjoyable that it becomes hard to really draw appropriate attention when something A+ comes along. This album deserves that designation.
The only mark against it might be Paul Asaro’s vocals. Someone I respect was critical of them. Personally I enjoyed them and thought they fit the content more than adequately. I’m usually the one to find male vocals jarring, particularly when they attempt a period affect. Asaro presents a late 20s vocal personality much more honestly than most. As I’ve discussed in other columns about this batch of guys they are all obsessive record collectors. They know how the several tracks with vocals should sound. The heart of this mostly instrumental album is in the playing.
Andy Schumm’s complex arrangements are simply fantastic. Bright rather than bluesy, they bring out the best in each musician during hot ensemble passages and leave room to ride down the inventive solos each is capable of. The band is rumored to have a book of original arrangements big enough to give you a hernia, all the more reason to become a regular at their weekly gigs. While you are unlikely to hear this material on anyone else’s album nothing is chosen for obscurity’s sake and the charts have all been thoroughly rehearsed in live performance.
Schumm provides two original compositions, and Jonathan Doyle another. All three are album highlights sliding so smoothly into the mix of period titles you won’t spot them. I particularly enjoyed Doyle’s “Sweet is the Night” though Schumm’s title track “Uptown” is the perfect album opener.
My favorites will be different from yours. Had I found a copy of their rendition of “Out of a Clear Blue Sky” on 78 rpm I’d have worn it down to the grooves. Other tracks with a similarly mellow appeal include “The Spell of the Blues” and “That Gal of Mine”. Masterful yet moving arrangements include “Harmony Blues” and “Ruff Scufflin'”.
The Fat Babies never forget that music should evoke emotion. 20s music isn’t simply about being hot. The sometimes saccharine compositions of the period drew out real feelings of love and longing. The poignant vitality inherent in this music cannot be ignored.
The Fat Babies also provide plenty of happy feelings for happy feet. “The Bathing Beauty Blues”, “The Sophomore”, and “Harlem Rhythm Dance” are irrepressibly joyful dance numbers. It’s no wonder a young people’s bar jazz scene developed around these guys. Every city should be so lucky!
The Fat Babies – Uptown
Delmark DE 258 (2019)