The graphic above might be mistaken for a knitting pattern for a Norwegian sweater. I see pines in the distance and a bear-like creature near the center. That could be a forest fire blazing on the right. What’s really blazing, of course, is “Fat’s” Waller’s prodigious technique and playful imagination made visible in this “piano roll” view of Handful of Keys. The image was generated when I imported the MIDI file from the duet version of the tune I created in Finale into Logic Pro (Apple’s audio and MIDI recording software). Click on the image to view it enlarged in a new window.
This four-hand version began as a transcription project. Many years ago I performed in a national tour and a sit-down run of Ain’t Misbehavin’ – the broadway musical based on “Fat’s” Waller tunes. It was far and away the most fun show I’ve ever played. But, I seldom had to play the full-out stride style that Waller brought to such dizzying heights. That’s because the band’s primarily role was to accompany the quartet of singers that are the real centerpiece of the show. When I recently transcribed Handful of Keys it was with the intent to learn to play it just like “Fats.” But, as hard as I tried, it became clear that I just don’t have the left hand chops to make it happen and the idea of “division of labor” was born.
The duet arrangement, for the most part, is true to Waller’s 1929 Victor recording. Some harmonies are fleshed out and there are octave doublings and added flourishes here and there but it isn’t at all a departure. It’s an arrangement that allows those of us who may not be quite agile or athletic enough to pull it off as a solo to have a great time with a great tune – and with a friend!
The key to playing this style with two players is in the stability of the “left hand.” The stride has to be locked in so that the “right hand” can land its syncopations cleanly between the solid fours. Take turns playing the Primo and Secondo parts!