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Stride Piano Duets: Live In Toronto, 1966 by Willie Smith

Include Stride Piano Duets as one of the noteworthy historical jazz releases of 2008. Recorded before a live audience in Toronto in 1966, the recording of this event finally was released by Delmark, to which Don Ewell’s widow gave the tape before her passing as well. As it happened, a foresighted promoter named David Gillman seized the opportunity to record the two stride piano masters when they both were in the same city at the same time (Ewell lived in Toronto at the time). Never before performing together, Smith and Ewell’s mutual understanding was immediately evident when they performed during a Toronto television engagement that Gillman secured. Expanding upon the opportunity, Gillman arranged for two pianos to be present at the now-defunct Golden Nugget on Yonge Street, and the masterful meeting of the four hands was set in motion.

Obviously entertainers, Smith and Ewell frolicked with some call-and-reponse ideas, sang along with their own playing, talked to the audience throughout the entire concert, introduced the tunes with verve and then even told the audience the obvious at their conclusions: "That’s it, ladies and gentlemen." Smith had already been performing for over forty years by this time, and his distinctive style of aggressive pouncing and musical mirth had led to his lionization, so to speak, by legions of admirers, including Duke Ellington. Ewell, a decade younger, played for years in New Orleans with traditional jazz musicians like Sidney Bechet and Kid Ory. By 1966, Ewell was modestly semi-retired, performing occasionally and for his own enjoyment.

Nonetheless, the challenge and fun of engaging into duo dueling with a like-minded pianist appeared to invigorate them both, so much so that there was no need for percussion, or any other instrument for that matter, other than piano. Stomping and striding and charging, changing attitudes and key signatures at the drop of a dime, both pianists use the instrument orchestrally, covering not only melody, but also board chopping left-hand chords that lay down the foundations for the music.

In addition, Smith knew how to build a song list for a concert, as he starts with his theme song, "Relaxin’," though relaxed he is not, easing the audience into his music, before eventually breaking loose in presto tempo on "I Found a New Baby" after a rubato introduction, which adds to the surprise when the instant acceleration occurs. Though the songs like "Charleston" or "Twelfth Street Rag" were written decades before the mid-sixties performance, they remained entirely engaging when the joyousness of Smith and Ewell bring them back to life with effortless mastery of the piano.

Though a large part of the enjoyment of Stride Piano Duets resides in the back-and-forth tossing of the lead and embellishment upon the other’s ideas, the concert included Smith’s solo version of "Here Comes the Band" with his accustomed humor and unexpected twists, sprinkling treble notes like confetti all over the melody itself. With 14 tracks encompassing over an hour of music from stride masters, the recording, whose existence remained unknown for years, represents a major addition to stride discography.

Review by Don Williamson

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Willie Smith
  • CD Title: Stride Piano Duets: Live In Toronto, 1966
  • Genre: Traditional / New Orleans
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: Delmark
  • Tracks: Relaxin’, Blue Skies, I Found a New Baby, Tea for Two, Charleston, You’re Driving Me Crazy, Here Comes the Band, Sweet Georgia Brown, Georgia on My Mind, Linger Awhile/Shine, If I Could Be with You, Just You Just Me, Squeeze Me, Twelfth Street Rag
  • Musicians: Willie “The Lion” Smith, Don Ewell (piano)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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