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Album Review

Willie "The Lion" Smith had a career that was somewhat sporadically documented in phonograph records. Living almost until the age of 80, he waxed a fair number of piano solos over many decades and sat in from time to time here and there, but only occasionally led his own bands. The solos greatly outnumber his ensemble recordings, and so it is always interesting to hear this pianist operating as part of a group. On September 29, 1944, a sextet calling itself the Lion's Band cut four sides for the small-time Black & White label in New York. Trumpeter Max Kaminsky, clarinetist Rod Cless, and trombonist Frank Orchard made for a strong front line, perfect for Kid Ory's "Muskrat Ramble" and "Bugle Call Rag." Smith sang on his own sentimental composition, "How Could You Put Me Down." Sounding a bit plaintive but not unpleasant, he was already ripening into the old man who would be heard singing and playing for the patrons of Blues Alley on two albums brought out by the Chiaroscuro label many years later. The odd tune here is "Let's Mop It," a somewhat forced bit of hipness based on the famous lick from Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts." With the exception of "Woodland Fantasy," a pleasant piano solo left over from a Moses Asch recording project, the rest of the material on this disc was recorded in Paris during December of 1949. There are 14 piano solos covering a good sampling of Smith's catalog of original compositions, along with a few standards and a pair of shouts by his old companion James P. Johnson: "Charleston" and "Carolina Shout." Smith's reflective blue reverie "I'm Gonna Ride the Rest of the Way" is particularly satisfying. As a sort of epilogue, listeners are treated to a session featuring the magnificent trumpet of Buck Clayton in the company of a rather reedy-sounding Claude Luter, who does his best to emulate his hero, Sidney Bechet. This little band's version of "Nagasaki" is especially delightful, as Willie strides up and down the piano while chuckling, grumbling, and shouting with joy.


Born: November 25, 1897 in Goshen, NY

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s

Willie "The Lion" Smith in the 1920s was considered one of the big three of stride piano (along with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller) even though he made almost no recordings until the mid-'30s. His mother was an organist and pianist, and Smith started playing piano when he was six. He earned a living playing piano as a teenager, gained his nickname "the Lion" for his heroism in World War I, and after his discharge he became one of the star attractions at Harlem's nightly rent parties. Although...
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