Music Review: Willie "The Lion" Smith & Don Ewell Stride Piano Duets: Live In Toronto 1966
It always comes as a bit of surprise to be reminded that Toronto, Canada in the 1950's and 1960's had a small but thriving music scene. With the intimate concert facility, Massy Hall as the focal point, three or four clubs in the downtown core hosted everything from Jazz and Blues to Rock and Roll. The Silver Rail, The Colonial Tavern, and The Golden Nugget hosted acts ranging from the Rockabilly sounds of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks to the cool Jazz piano of native son Oscar Peterson.
The most famous recording that exists from this period is of course the 1950's concert from Massy Hall featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillispe, and other heroes of the Be-Bop era. While nothing can match that concert for star power, Toronto attracted quite a few other notable names. Although not many recordings exist from those times one that does is from a concert that was given at the Golden Nugget in 1966 by pianists Don Ewell and Willie "The Lion" Smith.
While studio recordings of the two from their time in Toronto were released under the title of Grand Piano, Stride Piano Duets: Live In Toronto 1966 is the first time the recording of their club date has been issued. The promoter of the gig at the Golden Nugget had arranged for one night's show to be recorded and had given the tapes to Don Ewell. It was his wife Mary who provided them to Delmark Records in 2007 just before her death, having inherited them from her husband when he died.
Willie "The Lion" Smith began his career as a Jazz pianist before World War One. Aside from a two year stint in the army overseas he had been playing ever since. He was considered one of the foremost pianists of his era, and was considered one of the great innovators of early Jazz piano. Stride piano, judging by what I heard on this recording compared to the ragtime that I've heard performed, offered players far more freedom within a song to improvise and create than other forms of that era. While of a player is still going to have to follow a tune, it was a far cry from the tight constraints imposed on a pianist by the fixed rhythms of ragtime.
While the material included on Stride Piano Duets includes one of Willie's own creations, "Here Comes The Band", the majority of the tunes included are standards like "Sweet Georgia Brown", " Georgia On My Mind", and "Charleston". Aside from Willie going it alone on his own tune, all the material was performed as duets. Instead of one of them providing background for the other, over the course of a song they would either trade leads back and forth, or play in tandem. Initially it's impossible to tell the two men apart, but eventually you begin to discern individual characteristics unique to each of them.
Willie is the more forceful player, at times he comes close to sounding like he's pounding on the keys, yet at the same time he also introduces the more elaborate flourishes and intricate phrasing into the music. Don, other the hand, has a more consistent style of playing that is less flamboyant, but very smooth. In some ways the differences between the two men's style of playing is indicative of the different eras that their respective ages represent. For while Willie reflects the influences of barrelhouse and ragtime in his playing, Don was born the year before Willie was sent over seas to fight in World War One, 1916. His playing would have been influenced more by the big bands and swing players active in the thirties when he began playing professionally.
While unaccompanied piano can sound a bit thin, these two men playing together made the need for a rhythm section superfluous. Like two people sharing a keyboard, while one was handling the leads the other would take care to maintain a song's proper pace and tempo. It's actually quite astounding how well the two men complimented each other considering they hadn't played together for any length of time and the differences in their styles.
Live recordings from earlier eras don't have the same sound quality that we have come to expect from them today, and Stride Piano Duets is no exception to that rule. While we can hear the players clearly enough, the audience also comes through loud and clear. Periodically the music is almost drowned out by the chatter of those sitting up close to the band stand, and the clank of glasses and the sound of orders being taken by the wait staff occasionally interrupts the playing. Yet in an odd way that only adds to the ambience and somehow makes the recording that much more enjoyable.
Willie "The Lion" Smith was sixty-nine at the time of this recording and would be dead in seven years time, while Don Ewell, nearly twenty years his junior, would only last ten years longer then his senior partner, dying in 1983. Even in 1966 their style of playing, especially Willie's, reflected a bygone era, and their concert represented a rare opportunity to see or hear that music played live. Stride Piano Duets: Live In Toronto 1966 is a glimpse back to the days when Jazz piano wasn't too far removed from the bordellos of New Orleans, and the speakeasies of Chicago. It's loud, raw, and not very sophisticated, yet full of an energy that you don't often hear from today's musicians, and a lot of fun to listen to. Something you can't always say about some of the music on offer today.