Willie “The Lion” Smith and Don Ewell
Stride Piano Duets
Willie “The Lion” Smith was one of the “big three” stride-pianists of the 1920s, often playing at rent parties and jam sessions with his pals James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Smith, who wasn’t often featured on records until the mid-’30s, may have looked like a lowdown character because of his bowler hat and ever-present cigar, but he was actually a very sophisticated and often-lyrical pianist with a sound of his own. In fact, he was an early inspiration for Duke Ellington.
Don Ewell was among the most important stride pianists to emerge in the mid-’40s, after the style had been supplanted by bebop. Ewell was a versatile artist who could sound not only like a Harlem stride pianist, but also like Jelly Roll Morton or the top swing players of the day.
In 1966, Smith and Ewell were teamed together for a television show, resulting in a studio recording and a few gigs later that year. The music on Stride Piano Duets, recorded at a Toronto club later in 1966, had never previously been released. Recording quality is excellent. Smith sounds exuberant in both his verbal announcements and his playing, and Ewell proves to be a perfectly complementary match.
With the exception of the Lion’s solo feature on “Here Comes the Band,” all of the selections are duets, and it’s usually quite difficult to know who is playing what. Sticking to vintage standards that range from “Charleston” to “Just You, Just Me,” the two pianists often think as one – Ewell knew Smith’s style very well – and the music is consistently delightful, joyful and swinging.
- Scott Yanow