Willie "The Lion" Smith was one of the great stride pianists whose style and approach were an inspiration to many. His ideas were fermented by a larger-than-life presence that he transfused into his playing. He also transmitted his unabashed exuberance to his audience. The power of his playing and his animation come to the fore on this recording with Don Ewell.
Ewell was a stride pianist in a class of his own. He may not be as well known as Smith, but his articulate phrasing and sense of timing gave his music a fine balance. He turned out to be the right foil for Smith when circumstance brought the two together.
Ewell was living in Toronto in 1966 when promoter David Gillman heard him at the Golden Nugget. Gillman brought Ewell and Smith together for the first time in June 1966. As reports go, the two hit it off right away. That was good enough reason for a live recording at the Golden Nugget later that year. None of the music on this CD has been released before.
Smith and Ewell turn out to be exceptional cohorts. They transform a tune through pulse and emphasis, in the way they steer chord changes, in their melodic runs and the expanse they ride, particularly with their left hands.
The irrepressible Smith establishes a rapport right off as he introduces the theme of the evening "Relaxin.'" He sings wordlessly and as the tune is given a bouncing spark, the two invent phrases on the go. It's the beacon for what is to come.
That beacon leads to 14 well-chosen tunes showing how prolific Smith and Ewell were. While their individual styles were distinct, they wove them together seamlessly through their sense of harmony. "Twelfth Street Rag" serves as a prime example. The way they intertwine the melody line, the meshing of the chords, the slight shift of tempo, speaks immeasurably for the art of surprise.
Smith hits it right on with "Here Comes The Band." He is in his element on this solo outing, showing precisely why he came to be revered with his molding of the melody and the chords he brings into play. He lets out his vaudeville side on the songs "Linger Awhile/Shine" and "If I Could Be With You" showing a versatile showbiz personality.
Ewell and Smith made a fine team, and even if it was brief, it will be everlasting in its impact.
Personnel: Willie “The Lion” Smith: piano, vocals; Don Ewell: piano.