COMPACT DISC REVIEW
Grand Piano Duets
Willie “The Lion” Smith and Don Ewell, pianos
I’ve Found a New Baby / A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid / I Would Do Anything for You / Some of These Days / Just You, Just Me / Everybody Loves My Baby / Can’t We Be Friends / You Took Advantage of Me / Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now / Sweet Georgia Brown.
In 1966, Don Ewell and Willie “The Lion” Smith were brought together in Toronto for a filming on Canadian TV. While in town, the two often jammed together at a popular watering hole where Ewell had previously completed a seven-month gig, and one of these impromptu sessions was captured on tape. Re-released on CD in 2008 (“Stride Piano Duets,” Delmark 249), the recording, while historically of note, had several flaws: it was not taped in stereo, making it difficult to determine who was taking the lead at any given time; Smith’s flamboyancy made it difficult to hear Ewell’s performance, and occasionally there was some rowdy background noise.
Thankfully, this duo was reunited in 1967 in a Toronto recording studio, where two brand new, perfectly tuned grand pianos awaited them. With a superb recording engineer in charge, they were turned loose to “do their thing.” Released that year as an LP on the Canadian Sackville label, it has now been re-released in pristine stereo on CD (Sackville is now a subsidiary of Delmark) and what a joy it is to hear!
Smith’s theatrical flair still occasionally overpowers Ewell’s understated performances, but neither, talent-wise, takes a back seat to the other. In fact, Ewell’s stately keyboard skills often outshine The Lion’s brashness. The liner notes tell which stereo channel belongs to whom, but careful listening will enable the listener to easily make the distinction.
These two stridemeisters are quickly out of the starting gate with a high-octane rip through I’ve Found a New Baby. Other similar fast-paced takes are showcased on Just You, Just Me and Sweet Georgia Brown, the two artists staying rhythmically in lockstep through out. The rest of the tracks are taken at tempos taken above or below medium. Each man is given ample opportunities to take the lead and demonstrate his inventiveness, never sounding repetitive.
historical significance of this recording cannot be overstated. Smith was 70
years old at the time and would pass away six years later (Ewell was 51 and died
in 1983). The sound is pristine, the liner notes are illuminating and the cover
photo is priceless. Anyone with more than just a passing interest in stride
and/or ‘20s-style jazz piano should own this CD. It is a fitting tribute to
these two true giants of the idiom.
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