This splendid two-disc video and print package includes the 1980 feature-length interview with Professor Longhair, Fess Up, filmed two days before his death; the restored 1982 groundbreaking film Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together with Tuts Washington, Allen Toussaint, and Henry Roeland Byrd; excerpts from the 1987 documentary Southern Independents: Stevenson J. Palfi, on the work and films of the director, including intimate insight from Palfi into the making of Piano Players; and a 38-page hardback book with essays from Bruce Raeburn, Johnny Harper, and Michael Oliver-Goodwin, plus many never-published photos. The package comes from a team of filmmakers, writers, designers, and producers who knew and worked with Palfi. Check out our great reviews below!
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Trailer for Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together (on disc one)
Excerpts from Fess Up (on disc two)
REVIEWS OF FESS UP
“Extraordinary,” Amanda Petrusich says of Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together in the New Yorker. She says of Fess’s funeral in the film: “There was an open casket, which Palfi doesn’t film around, exactly—you can see Fess’s face there, his head propped up by an American flag. I was shocked by how moved I was by the shot—how frank and intimate it felt, to see his body like that. There’s crying and rich, guttural singing; the line between the two is often nebulous. Be sure you have something good to drink while you watch, and plenty of room to dance.” The Fess Up package, Petrusich says, “reiterates Fess’s significance to the history of American music.” In addition to her praise for the project, Petrusich delivers an insightful roundup of Professor Longhair’s life and significance.
“Fess Up is a welcome addition to the Longhair canon,” Robert H. Cataliotti says in Living Blues magazine. “Conducted by Eddie Kurtz, the interview provides an in-depth opportunity for the pianist to talk about his life, music and career.” He continues, “Like the original film, Fess Up provides an indispensable window into the world of Professor Longhair.” The original, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, “is one of the few windows into the enigmatic Longhair…(it) shows Longhair taking charge of the three-way piano rehearsals, directing the arrangement…and finding a way to make the performance work with a very stubborn Washington and a rather frustrated Toussaint, who as a veteran producer clearly was used to having things go his way.” Piano Players “is essential viewing for New Orleans R&B enthusiasts.”
Mark Humphrey in the Baja Review gives a comprehensive run down of all the elements in the Fess Up package. Of the booklet: “There is a wealth of great photos,” and Michael Oliver-Goodwin’s original 1984 review of the film is “insightful.” Of the Fess interview: “This long interview is a fascinating document, one surely no one involved suspected would become his Last Testament.” Of Southern Independents: Stevenson J. Palfi: “Palfi went toe to toe with his subjects when needed” (on a side note, the Fess Up production team appreciates Humphrey, throughout his review, picking up on the themes laid out in Southern Independents about the difficulty of the independent documentary filmmaking process). And of Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together: “Piano Players is the crown jewel” in the package. “The casual intimacy with which his subjects reveal themselves and their music shows how thoroughly they trusted Palfi.” The documentary “is more than a love letter to three great New Orleans pianists: it’s an insightful reflection of a musical community and of the process of making music, demonstrated and explained by the musicians themselves. It’s obvious that the filmmaker, who shot the players and keyboards from sundry angles, loved pianos, their physicality and their music. Palfi’s editing, a comment by Byrd dovetailing with an illustration by Toussaint leading to something further from Tuts, is remarkable. It illustrates that the strength of a documentary is as much in its pre-production (here gaining the confidence of the film’s subjects) and post-production (meticulous editing) as its actual footage. It’s obvious a lot of passion went into Piano Players: I wish there were more music docs like it.”
“The joyous Fess Up is the ultimate posthumous testament to the genius of Henry Roeland Byrd,” Ben Sandmel writes of Professor Longhair in Louisiana Cultural Vistas. It “reveals Professor Longhair as a man of keen insight and resourcefulness,” he says, and continues that Longhair “cited the Jamaican sound of calypso—which is not typically associated with New Orleans—as a major source of his rhythmic inspiration. This is one of many such revelations in a fascinating ninety-four-minute interview.” Of Washington, Toussaint, and Longhair in Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, Sandmel writes that “Watching them interact, and hearing their individual comments about the project, is a delight,” and he gives Tuts his props: “Although Washington’s name does not elicit great recognition today, he was a highly respected pianist whose eclectic work embraced classic early jazz and ragtime, blues and boogie-woogie, R&B session work with the big-voiced New Orleans singer Smiley Lewis, and sentimental standards and light classical pieces played from sheet music.”
“Breathtaking,” says Bill Bentley in Bentley’s Bandstand at The Morton Report. He continues, “This totally knocked-out 2-DVD collection of New Orleans’ piano guru Professor Longhair comes charging to life...the 38-page booklet screams Grammy Award...producer Polly Waring has done what has previously seemed impossible: she has brought Roy ‘Professor Longhair’ Byrd back to life. Yeah you right.”
Dave Keyes, in Elmore Magazine, calls Fess Up “priceless,” “a MUST,” and says “as a pianist, I was brought to tears” by the Fess interview.
Jason Berry, in the Daily Beast, highlights Southern Independents: Stevenson J.Palfi, one of the video features in the Fess Up package, noting that Palfi, with Piano Players and his other work, had a “tenacious work ethic and achievements.” Berry also highlights the upcoming release of Allen Toussaint: The Songwriter Tapes, the film Palfi shot and never finished, now being completed by director Aaron Walker and editor Tim Watson.
“The most important historic reissue of New Orleans music and interview material since the complete Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress interview from 1938 [by Alan Lomax], reissued in 2005 by Rounder,” said 2018 LEH Lifetime Achievement award recipient Ben Sandmel at the 2018 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival panel discussion on Professor Longhair. Also at the festival (at the panel discussion celebrating 40 years of the Radiators), respected bassist Reggie Scanlan, who was in Professor Longhair’s band and has played with countless others, said of Fess’s interview in Fess Up, “It’s classic.”
Keith Spera, in the New Orleans Advocate, discusses Fess and describes the Fess Up package as “lavish.”