Willie the Lion Roars Again

Lion and Tiger001

THE LION AND THE TIGER / McHUGH-FIELDS: On the Sunny Side of the Street (2 tks). HANDY: Beale Street Blues. COOKE: Blame it On the Blues. HEYWOOD-COOK: I’m Coming, Virginia. JORDAN: Sweetie Dear. SMITH: Keep Your Temper. You’re the Limit. Rock and Roll and Weep. Woodland Fantasy. Harlem Joys. Zig Zag. Relaxin’. Here Comes the Band. WALLER: Fussin’. RAPEE-POLLACK: Charmaine. PORTER: Just One of Those Things. L. & O. RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. BLAKE: Memories of You. Medley: WALLER: Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now/JOHNSON: Charleston. JOHNSON: If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight. PINKARD: Sweet Georgia Brown (2 tks). Medley: CREAMER-LAYTON: After You’ve Gone/S. WILLIAMS: I Ain’t Got Nobody. YOUMANS: Sweet Sue. ROBERT-BOUSQUET: La Madelon. ROBLEDO: Three O’Clock in the Morning [Trois Heures du Matin]. JOHNSON: Carolina Shout. MORTON: Wolverine Blues. TRAD.: Didn’t He Ramble / Willie “The Lion” Smith, pno; Jo Jones, dm / Frémaux et Associés FA 5678

Here’s a rare treat: a chance to hear stride piano giant Willie “The Lion” Smith in stereo, near the very end of his long career, in association with former Count Basie drummer Jo Jones. But the title of the album is a bit of a gimmick. Although Willie Smith had been known since the 1920s by his nickname “The Lion,” Jones was never known or called “The Tiger” except for the title of this album.

Smith was one of those musicians who followed his own muse. Not only did he not improvise on the melody, but only on the harmony, of the tunes he played, but he often changed them around, changing or omitting notes and sometimes whole bars of music to suit his own lights. This sometimes drove those who played with him a bit batty, but an early gig (1929) that young Artie Shaw played with him taught him many things about the nature of jazz that the famed clarinetist-bandleader never forgot.

Smith could be like that, accommodating and instructive to those who approached him acknowledging his excellence, but he could also be petty and nasty. He had the hubris to imagine that he was the greatest jazz pianist in the world, putting down those rivals who either did not accept his self-assessment (like Jelly Roll Morton) or ignoring them as if they didn’t exist (like Art Tatum, Nat Cole and Bud Powell). But he was certainly an interesting musician as these 1972 recordings clearly show.

Jo Jones, by contrast, was a laid-back performer whose smooth, ball-bearing-like style propelled the Basie band from about a decade, from 1936 to 1945 or ’46, and afterwards propelled many other jazz musicians in his years as a freelance artist. Tenor saxist Lester Young became so used to his smooth, propulsive yet unobtrusive beat that it rather spoiled him; he was seldom happy with the “bomb-droppers” who played with him from the late 1940s onward, referring to them as “the bebop kiddies.”

These two sessions, one recorded on February 18 and the other on June 6, 1972, were among the last directed by Hughes Panassié, the French-born traditional jazz fanatic who first made his mark on the recording industry in 1938 by organizing recording sessions at RCA Victor for the likes of trumpeters Tommy Ladnier and Sidney DeParis, pianist James P. Johnson and Cliff Jackson, and guitarist Teddy Bunn, who had sadly been shunted aside during the Swing Era. The good news is that he also used Sidney Bechet on a few tracks. The bad news is that he used Mezz Mezzrow, one of the worst jazz musicians of all time, on most of the others.

But here he was working with a winning combination, and although I’m not sure they had ever played together on a live session prior to this recording they clearly worked hand-in-glove. This was, in my view, due more to the musical sensitivity of Jones, who could pretty much adapt himself to a number of jazz settings, which is what made him such a sought-after drummer. Here he adapts his normally fluid style to the loping, somewhat irregular beat of the pianist.

These sessions were newly remastered several years ago, at which time the selections were put in their correct chronological order and spoken commentary between numbers included. One thing that strikes the listener is how much closer Smith’s beat was to ragtime than many of his peers. James P. developed a very modern, linear style by the late 1920s, and to some extent so did Fats Waller, but Smith always retained a slight choppiness in his style that was unique to him. I was also surprised to hear how much slower his conception of Joe Jordan’s tune Sweetie Dear was compared to the famous 1932 recording by Sidney Bechet’s New Orleans Feetwarmers (surely one of the most exciting, albeit short-lived, jazz bands of all time). The performance given here of Smith’s original tune, Keep Your Temper, is one of his best; he was well warmed up by the time he hit the first note.

Among the many arguments that Smith had with Morton concerned piano technique. Although both could certainly play well enough to improvise on their own music, Willie claimed that Jelly Roll didn’t have the technique to compete with the stride pianists. In 1938, Morton wrote and recorded his one and only stride piece, the Fingerbreaker. Smith responded with his own Fingerbuster, but Morton’s piece was clearly better constructed and, truth be told, more difficult to play unless one had a classical technique. On this session, Smith precedes the performance of his own Fussin’ by proclaiming it “a gasser.” It’s a good piece, to be sure, but nowhere close to Morton’s superb two-handed coordination at the keyboard. Smith’s strengths as an improviser lay, as I mentioned earlier, in his imaginative reworking of the original melody by displacing beats and changing the rhythm—something Morton generally refused to do because his goal was always to “keep the melody going.” Yet Smith could do this on occasion, too, as he proves in his excellent performance of Cole Porter’s Just One of Those Things. Here, Jones takes a drum solo that sounds for all the world like a great tap dancer. The duo surprises one with another Smith original titled Rock and Roll and Weep, which has a definite R&B feel in the first chorus before shifting over to his normal, loping ragtime-stride sound. Woodland Fantasy is particularly interesting as it shows yet another connection in Smith’s style, to the early 20th-century American impressionist composers. It almost sounds like a swinging rendition of a piece by Edward MacDowell.

The stride medley of Waller’s Keepin’ Out of Mischief and Johnson’s Charleston is yet another indicator of how different his loping ragtime beat was from the other stride pianists, yet his treatment of both tunes is imaginative. The same can also be said for his rendition of Johnson’s If I Could Be With You, in which he almost peels off individual notes like leaves from a tree, again almost making the music sound like MacDowell. This is followed by a untitled, uptempo and somewhat wild improvised piece that sounds like the last bit of the previous piece. Jones flashes his chops on this one.

Smith claims that his Harlem Joys is modern-sounding for its time, but it’s not as advanced as several James P. Johnson pieces of the same vintage, though still good.

Smith’s first rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown serves as a perfect example of how he rewrote tunes as he played them, changing the harmony, rhythm and even the basic layout of the melody as he went along. Jones somehow manages to follow his train of thought on the drums. The second take, much faster, is more conventional but still rather exciting. By the time you hear his second reminiscence in the second set, you come to realize that this is, in a sense, Smith’s version of Morton’s Library of Congress recordings: reminiscing about the players and songwriters he knew way back when, and giving you examples of their music in his own style. After You’ve Gone is also taken at a more relaxed pace than you normally hear it, and he moves smoothly from this piece into I Ain’t Got Nobody. In the French song La Madelon, Smith and Jones move into a loping 6/8 tempo, strange indeed for stride jazz, and this tempo morphs into a 6/8 march as it moves along, suddenly becoming a stride-swing piece in the second half.

Another strange choice for a jazz pianist is Julian Robledo’s 1922 song, Three O’Clock in the Morning (recorded by both Paul Whiteman and John McCormack for Victor, and both versions hit records!). There’s not much improvisation, but he plays it well. This is, in turn, followed by Smith’s semi-boogie number, Zig Zag, and this is, indeed, a highly original and creative piece. Smith also has fun with James P.’s first hit tune, Carolina Shout. Jones has a surprisingly long drum solo on this one.

A real shocker, considering their rivalry, is Smith’s performance of Morton’s Wolverine Blues, which he begins almost like his own “spring” song at a surprisingly slow tempo (which I’m sure Jelly hated, since it was conceived as an uptempo piece). He finally increases the speed in the second half, turning it into a stride number with several drum breaks by Jones.

His introductory comments to Relaxin’ features Smith speaking in Hebrew, reminding us that he thought himself a member of one of the lost tribes of Israel (which, alas, was not accepted by Israel). The set wraps up with an impromptu rendition of the old New Orleans funeral song Didn’t He Ramble, which then morphs into another Smith original, Here Comes the Band. This gets an extended workout—nearly 10 minutes—with several rhythmic riffs and other ideas tossed around and another long drum solo by Jones.

Overall, then, a fascinating album, and a treat to hear Willie “The Lion” in modern stereo.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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