Henry thins Francis’ CD, “Some Stride Piano Playing” (HTF-104),
is available for $15.00 plus $2.00 shipping ($5.00 overseas) from
Mephistopheles Records, 16 Sunnyside Lane, Lincoln, MA 01773.
Several different payment options are available.
This is a very, very good album. Splendidly authentic stride piano, beautifully played, in the Waller and Ellington manner, in excellent sound, not to be missed.
— Pat Hawse, Jazz Journal International, January 2002
Stride piano lives on, as played by isolated but often very talented pianists, including Henry “thins” Francis. His interpretations contain plenty of spirit, impressive technique, and a real feel for the music. It does seem strange that Francis is not better known, but that seems to be the fate of all post-1945 stride pianists. Some Stride Piano Playing, his definitive release, is well worth searching for.
— Scott Yanow, Cadence, December 2001
Henry Francis is a pianist that we would like to hear more from. In the meantime, you should have this CD to enjoy. The booklet has Henry’s good notes on the stride piano idiom and a few interesting words about each tune’s origin. Nicely done.
— Russ Chase, IAJRC Journal, Summer 2001 (International Association of Jazz Record Collectors)
Henry thins Francis is an impressive stride pianist. He has a relaxed style (he is not afraid to take his time) yet also has plenty of technique in reserve. His renditions of these 20 songs are respectful and melodic but full of subtle surprises, and he avoids the trap of trying to sound exactly like any of his role models Fats Waller and early Duke Ellington. Fans of classic jazz piano will definitely want this fine release.
— Scott Yanow, L. A. Jazz Scene, July 2001
Henry Francis knows where the best music for this kind of piano playing comes from: the play list is dominated by pieces by Fats Waller, the ultimate strider, and Duke Ellington. If there is any doubt that a good stride pianist can go at blazing speed without missing a chord, that should be resolved after hearing Francis’ racehorse rendition of Waller’s “Handful of Keys”. Also, a lovely “Prelude to a Kiss” (Ellington) features deft, delicate runs. With his considerable talent and wisely selected play list, Francis is an extremely competent player, and this album would be good to have on the shelf to take down when in the mood for some rollicking, good-natured piano playing.
— Dave Nathan, All Music Guide
The latest disc of Henry thins Francis demonstrates that the stride piano tradition is in good hands. He applies the stride seasoning to all sorts of songs, true to the tradition. He enjoys digging deeper into the Fats Waller world than the classic but overplayed hits, resulting in special rewards and pleasures. Not only has the music been very well chosen, the piano playing has its own good qualities, with Francis applying his interpretive talents.
— Dick Neeld, Jersey Jazz, September 2001
Maybe, as “thins” remarks, stride piano is “a music of the past”, but you can have a grand reunion with it by listening to this CD, played by a master of the art.
— John Nelson, The Mississippi Rag, January 2002
The play list discloses Francis’ affinity for Fats Waller, and why not, with Duke Ellington’s works not far behind. This CD is a welcome addition to the current stride piano literature.
— Dave Nathan, All About Jazz
On this solo piano album, “Some Stride Piano Playing”, Henry thins Francis presents a unique mix of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington compositions, plus some tasteful pop songs and show tunes from the classic period (1920-1940) of American songwriting — rendered predominantly in the robust musical style of Fats Waller (hence the name “thins”). The frolicsome, flashy, swaggering sound of “Harlem stride” piano immediately commands attention, characterized by its strong rhythm, powerful left hand, and full orchestral sound.
The CD includes:
several “jump for joy” Fats Waller numbers, including “Handful of Keys” and “Zonky”.
two lush “indigo mood” pieces by Duke Ellington (“Prelude To a Kiss”, “Azure”).
two Duke Ellington “jungle” numbers (“The Mooche”, “Black & Tan Fantasy”).
some superior songs, such as “You Took Advantage of Me” and “Love Me or Leave Me”.
Fats Waller’s famous jazz waltz, “Jitterbug Waltz”.
assorted fascinating pieces by Jelly Roll Morton, W. C. Handy, and others.
Although jazz is and always has been evolving, its evolution has produced various mature styles (Harlem Stride Piano being one), each of which is worthy of preservation and exploration. Henry thins Francis demonstrates that musical creativity and artistic viability can be achieved today in a noncontemporary jazz idiom. Analogously, musicians continue to perform Beethoven, and the public pays to hear them do so.
Here are links to downloadable audio samples from the CD, each about 60 seconds long. These are MP3 files averaging about 1MB. Just click on the song title to download the audio clip.
1. SERENADE FOR A WEALTHY WIDOW was written in 1934 by the English composer Reginald Foresythe. Foresythe marched to his own drummer, both as a person and a composer. He had a predilection for dark, brooding harmonies and unusual titles — “Dodging A Divorcee”, “Garden Of Weed”, “Deep Forest”; the latter was Earl Hines’ theme in the 30’s. “Serenade” is atypically sprightly and upbeat for Foresythe, but it does have a few passages that speak in his unique harmonic language.
2. I AIN’T GOT NOBODY (“and nobody cares for me”) was written in 1916 by Spencer Williams, who composed many songs that became jazz classics, such as “Basin Street Blues” and “I’ve Found A New Baby”.
3. PRELUDE TO A KISS (1938), by Duke Ellington, is a fine example of his many lush, romantic compositions.
4. STOMPY JONES (1934) is Ellington’s musical tribute to Richard Jones, known to all as Jonsey. Originally a waiter at the Cotton Club, he eventually became the Ellington band factotum and Duke’s valet. The piece consists of a series of densely chorded riff figures played over the simple harmonic structure of the last strain of William Tyers’ 1911 habanera “Panama”, which had become a popular New Orleans street march. To emphasize its roots, I begin my version with “Panama”.
5. WILLOW TREE was written by Fats Waller for the 1928 Broadway show “Keep Shuffling”. It is a study in “bluesiness”, although structurally it is not a 12-measure blues.
6. UP JUMPED YOU WITH LOVE (1942), by Waller, is a felicitous song with a harmonically ingenious “bridge” (the third 8-measure block).
7. JITTERBUG WALTZ (1942), composed by Waller in response to one of his son’s piano exercises, has become one of the best-known jazz waltzes.
8. WILD CAT BLUES is a four-strain piano piece written by Waller in 1923 (at age 19) in collaboration with Clarence Williams. It was Fats’ first published composition; unfortunately, he never recorded it.
9. THE MOOCHE (1928). During his four year tenure (1927-31) at Harlem’s Cotton Club, Ellington developed his so-called “jungle sound”, designed originally to make his band appear as exotic, primitive, and African as possible to the affluent whites who ventured uptown in droves to the Cotton Club for cultural titillation. However, in retrospect he had created a sophisticated, vital, expressive orchestral medium. “The Mooche” is, with its strong slow 4/4 beat and its very imaginative harmony, an archetypal Ellington jungle piece. The Mooche was the name of a slow dance.
10. LOUNGING AT THE WALDORF (1936), by Waller, is an uncomplicated little riff number whose original role was principally as backdrop for Fats’ extremely humorous monologue concerning the fantasized epicurean shenanigans of himself and his friends in the elegant dining room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (“Shut up, boy, you know they don’t pass no chitlins ’round in here”).
11. ZONKY was written by Fats Waller for the 1929 revue “Load Of Coal”, staged at the Harlem cabaret Connie’s Inn. This show also introduced “Honeysuckle Rose” to the world. “Zonky” is one of the numerous “dance” songs from that era (“Walking The Dog”, “Balling The Jack”, “Doing The New Low-Down”, etc) in which the lyrics describe a new dance you simply have got to learn in order to be with it. Andy Razaf’s lyrics proclaim: “I will bet a dime against a doughnut/ Other dances, they may come and go but/ When you learn the Zonky you will want it to stay”. Not terribly profound musically, it’s just a nice pretext upon which to make some rhythm.
12. AZURE (1937). Ellington was obsessed with the color blue — thus his many titles such as “Mood Indigo”, “Transblucency”, etc. This atmospheric piece exhibits in one section some very adventurous, virtually atonal, harmony — Duke, as usual, was ahead of everyone.
13. I’M PUTTING ALL MY EGGS IN ONE BASKET was written in 1936 by Irving Berlin for the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movie musical “Follow The Fleet”. The numerous Astaire movies, with scores by Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, and Youmans, yielded a high percentage of first-class songs. For me, the most memorable scene in this movie is when Astaire, in a sailor’s uniform, plays this song on the piano. It’s not dubbed — we hear what he plays on screen, and it’s not bad at all!
14. HARLEM BLUES, written in 1922 by the great blues composer W. C. Handy, is not really a blues at all. It consists of three very different strains which complement each other perfectly. I play it fairly straight here, not wishing much to alter the mood and flow of the original composition.
15. YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME. A charming song, which has long been a standard, by Richard Rodgers from the1928 Broadway show “Present Arms”.
16. CONCERTO FOR COOTIE was written in 1940 to showcase Ellington’s great trumpeter Cootie Williams. In 1943, Duke used the opening theme to construct the very popular (and much less interesting) song “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”. My version is essentially a piano transcription of the orchestral arrangement.
17. THE PEARLS, by the great pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, was published in 1923 but probably composed earlier. All of Morton’s recorded versions are quite different from each other and from the published version, so I have felt free to depart from the printed page.
18. BLACK AND TAN FANTASY (1927) Ellington wrote jointly with his trumpeter Bubber Miley, the pioneering mute and growl specialist, whom Duke claimed to be “marinated in soul”. Like “The Mooche”, this is a unique classic from his “jungle” period.
19. LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME is from the 1928 Broadway show “Whoopee”, whose music (including “Making Whoopee”) was written by the great and prolific songwriter Walter Donaldson. Incidentally, its harmonic structure was the basis for George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland”.
20. HANDFUL OF KEYS, by Fats Waller (1929), is the quintessential stride piano “party piece”. These formal compositions were commonly employed weapons of destruction or attempted destruction at piano “cutting sessions” — spontaneous after-hours gladiatorial contests, with the winner determined by audience response.