HAPPY FREAKIN' BIRTHDAY, FESS!!!
As a college student eking out a living at long defunct Cymbaline Records in Santa Cruz, one of our regulars was New Age music superstar George Winston. His albums December and Winter Into Spring were the definition of textural piano bliss, and every jerk-water in a cardigan came in with their little yap dog to buy copies in the late 1980s. Given the character of his music one might assume the dude was majorly mellow but what Winston mainly came by to do was special order rare Japanese CDs of boogie woogie jazz and jump blues. And his main obsession was Professor Longhair, who stirred a hot coal fire inside George that warmed every damn employee up to the New Orleans great. We'd put on his records in the store and the way music flowed through his fingers, the way an 88 purred and kicked beneath his touch, well, it hit one like lightning and made you dance around like a puppet with tangled strings. And that sensation has never diminished for me, and I'm guessing Mr. Winston, too.
Born Henry Roeland Byrd in 1918, the man who became known as Professor Longhair, or just Fess for short, took what the other stride and jump pianists were doing and just made it weird. And just plain wonderful, too. There's a crazed pleasure and simmering sense of possibility inside his signature numbers "Go to the Mardi Gras," "Tipitina," "No Buts – No Maybes" and "Big Chief." But, open up his admittedly sparse recorded output – given that he started his career in 1948 and died in 1980 there should be more – and there's all kinds of strange crags and wicked journeys to be found. Often joyful, there's an angled difference to Fess' playing and compositional sense that to this day sets him apart, though one picks up some of his peculiar frequencies in Marco Benevento, John Medeski and Brian Haas; not the New Orleans flavor (see Dr. John for that prescription) so much as his joie de vivre and in-the-moment ability to curve into unexpected spaces. He will always be associated and identified with his New Orleans focused material – and rightly so – but there's so much more to Professor Longhair than Mardi Gras, and we cheat ourselves as listeners by limiting our perspective on one of the defining piano voices of the 20th century. To watch him in action was to see music itself come to life, flowing and playing through his entire body as it came into being. Such a beautiful sight.
Fess would have been 91-years-old if he were still with us today. I know for sure I miss him, and I betcha his piano does, too. Happy birthday, sir, the angels are gonna get a hell of a concert tonight. (Dennis Cook, JamBase Associate Editor)
We begin our Fess focused Eye Candy with The Meters backing him on a venerable blues staple. He could take even the well worn and give it a fresh twist, not the least in his wholly unique, impossible to duplicate phrasing and vocal style.
Here he is with pals Allen Toussaint and Tutts Washington in the 1982 documentary Piano Players Rarely Play Together.
Toussaint discusses the Professor's style and innovations.
Proof that Fess' music has traveled everywhere: Japanese club act Nikki & Cup performing a credible cover of his "Doin' It"!
Now, a wicked fun version of "Tipitina" from a particularly copacetic Dr. John and Johnny Winter. They also get into the Lincoln Chase's 1950s hit "Such A Night" in this clip.
Appropriately, we give the last word to the good Professor, with three more killers from the man himself.