If you’re assuming that a 1967 summit of the two greatest masters of stride piano of the day is a no-holds-barred cutting contest, prepare to be surprised. The glorious Grand Piano Duets is all about the camaraderie that Willie “The Lion” Smith and Don Ewell share.
The Lion’s virtuosity is undiminished in his 70th year. Not only that, his rhythmic ear retains its cutting edge in those free-jazz days, and throws out all sorts of syncopated sidebars: a set of staggered bass accents on “Just You, Just Me”; a left hand that outruns his right on “I’ve Found a New Baby.” But the elder seems delighted when Ewell, 20 years Smith’s junior but no awestruck student, holds his own. “Whoa, you got the range now!” he shouts when Ewell plays a pretty row of arpeggios on “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid,” and laughs aloud at a repeated curlicue on “I Would Do Anything for You.”
If Ewell’s beat isn’t as playful as the Lion’s, he is in fact the prettier player. His flourishes are lithe and often delicate, with a lyricism that both complements and rivals his partner’s percussive attack. On “Some of These Days,” he often enmeshes Smith’s hard-hit accents with light trills that make the players seem to be of one mind.
That, of course, is key: The fun of Grand Piano Duets is what the two pianists do together. They acknowledge rather than grapple with each other’s strengths, making the collision of the Lion’s punch with Ewell’s more fragile fingerings a thing of joy.