“She’s Funny That Way” is a 1928 song composed by Charles N. Daniels, using the pseudonym Neil Moret, with lyrics by Richard A. Whiting — normally a composer himself: “Hooray for Hollywood,” “Ain’t We Got Fun.” But apparently he wrote this lyric for his wife. It’s a great, great song.
A thousand singers have recorded it, but one recording and one only is definitive: Frank Sinatra in 1944. (He recorded it again in 1960, but you can ignore that one — he was already shifting into Chairman of the Board mode, whereas in 1944 he was merely the greatest male pop vocalist of the twentieth century.) Go ahead, have a listen. I’ll wait.
Glorious, isn’t it?
You may have noticed that the song’s construction is slightly unusual. Each stanza is comprised of four lines, the third and fourth of them always being “I’ve got a woman who’s crazy for me / She’s funny that way.” You could say that the song is made up of two-line verses each of which is followed by a two-line chorus, or that it doesn’t have a chorus, or that it doesn’t have verses — though it does have a brief bridge in the middle. (Come to think of it, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is similar.) However you describe it, it’s a classic — and, I think, one of the most neglected entries in the Great American Songbook.
But with all that context in place: I’m here to talk about Art Tatum. Tatum recorded “She’s Funny That Way” at least twice, but I want to focus on one of them, because I think it’s the most perfect jazz recording ever made.
First of all, if you don’t know Art Tatum’s work, you need to understand that (a) he plays almost nothing but standards, (b) he is indisputably the most technically masterful pianist in the history of jazz, and (c) he uses that technique to play those standards in outrageously baroque ways, often amounting to deconstructions of their melodic and harmonic structures. Have a listen to his version of “In a Sentimental Mood,” which he turns inside out about eleven times, twice interpolating “Way Down Yonder on the Swanee River.” It’s nuts.
So with that in mind, please listen to Tatum’s version of “She’s Funny That Way.” Again, I’ll wait.
The first thing you should notice is that for Art Tatum this is remarkably restrained. (It would be pyrotechnical from anybody else.) He never strays far from the melody or the basic harmony. Why he is so restrained I don’t know. But it’s the right choice.
You’ll also notice that he plays it at a much faster tempo than Frank, or anyone else, sings it. It’s a tender, slightly melancholy song, and everyone takes it slow — except Art. So in the first minute he plays the entire song: verse/chorus, verse/chorus, bridge, verse/chorus. And then, precisely at the one-minute mark, he starts to get down.
Maybe you’ve heard of stride piano? If you want to know what it is, just listen to what Tatum is doing with his left hand here. That bassline walking — no, it’s striding, it’s even strutting. One of the fathers of stride piano is James P. Johnson, who taught Fats Waller, who inspired Tatum. Tatum ended up playing with a harmonic and rhythmic complexity that neither Johnson nor Waller would have understood or maybe even liked, but he never lost the love of that stride bassline. (He even uses it in his version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the melody of which he starts deconstructing in the first bar.)
That stride rhythm anchors him for most of the rest of the song — even when you think he’s left it behind he slyly brings it back — and that anchor I think keeps him on the melody as well. Oh, to be sure, he’s glissando-ing up and down the keyboard at supersonic speed, and elaborates a series of melodies-within-the-melody — listen to the delightful little run at about 1:51 — but you never lose track of where you are.
Around 2:03 he turns the whole song into — well, almost a barrelhouse number. You’d think that wouldn’t work with this intimate love song, but it’s awesome.
Even though the stride rhythm keeps going, and he’s flickering all over the top half of the keyboard, increasingly there’s some funny stuff going on in that left hand. He starts playing these rapid block chords that often go down when the melody is going up, and vice versa. Listen to around 2:40, for instance, when he’s playing the bridge again. Vertigo-inducing. But then he’s back to that joyous semi-barrelhouse.
At 3:09, with a booming note in the bass, he slows the stride rhythm, and as he moves towards the conclusion deploys some complex harmonies to remind himself and us that it’s a kind of art song he’s playing. Starting at 3:27 he breaks the rhythm; then, at 3:39, another booming bass note tells us that he’s about to recapitulate … and he does — but just when you think he’s about to return us to the tonic, hit us with that final chord (3:41), he has one more little trick to play: an absolutely delightful 23-note run up the keyboard that’s basically a variation on the theme, concluding with the last two notes of the original melody played up high, like a little signatory “Ta-da!”
It’s a work of genius, absolute perfection. If you were to ask me “What is jazz?” — I would just play you this song. It encapsulates everything that makes jazz the great American art form.