The Lion Roars! His Greatest 1934-1944
Smith, Willie "The Lion"
Hear How . . .
During the Depression years, one of the ways people in New York made ends meet was to hold informal house concerts featuring well-known musicians, usually piano players. These "rent parties" were sometimes uproarious events. One star of the circuit, the pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, recalled that "about a hundred people would crowd into a seven-room flat until the walls bulged and the main door was often split wide open."
Through these informal, off-the-books affairs, Smith (1897–1973) and others developed sizable reputations for rocking out—while refining the intricate conventions of "stride piano," which fused elements of ragtime, the blues, and boogie-woogie. This is music of superhuman dexterity: On many of the performances in this anthology, Smith can be heard operating as a one-man rhythm section, pumping out a repetitive bass line while also dishing sharp, hard-swinging chords. It's music of synapse-frying intricacy, but rarely is that the first impression: A gregarious entertainer and raconteur, Smith always sounds like he's just having fun.
This anthology gathers recordings Smith made during his peak years. The Newark, New Jersey, native began playing professionally after returning from combat duty in World War I (where, he told people later, he earned that "Lion" nickname for his bravery), and quickly found himself in demand. The early tracks are drawn from sessions he did as a sideman, backing the clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow and others. Later highlights include pieces from Smith's group called His Cubs— among them his original "Echoes of Spring" (1935), which has a sweet, almost disarming lyricism. Then come piano solos like the aptly named "Finger Buster" (1939), which find Smith contrasting beautiful rhapsodic melodies with high-energy ragtime-derived impromptus that utilize the piano's full range. These might sound quaint today, but they startled plenty of musicians at the time, influencing such essential voices as Duke Ellington (who wrote "Portrait of the Lion" for him) and Thelonious Monk.
Released: 1988, Living Era
Key Tracks: "Harlem Joys," "Echoes of Spring," "The Swampland Is Calling Me," "Strange Fruit"
Catalog Choice: The Lion and the Lamb
Next Stop: Albert Ammons and Meade "Lux" Lewis: The First Day
After That: Various Artists: Stride Piano Summit
Book Pages: 720–721