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Willie “The Lion” Smith & Don Ewell: Grand Piano Duets (Sackville)

Review of album featuring two masters of stride piano

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Cover of Willie “The Lion” Smith & Don Ewell Grand Piano Duets album
Cover of Willie “The Lion” Smith & Don Ewell Grand Piano Duets album

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.”

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