Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Concentratin'





Luckey & the Lion: Harlem Piano (Good Time Jazz 10035)

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Willie 'The Lion' Smith (piano).

Composed by Willie “The Lion’ Smith


Recorded: New York, March 18, 1958


Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

We tend to remember Harlem jazz for its rent parties or 'jungle music' at the Cotton Club. But there was a concert hall side to this music, drawing on classical influences, and aiming to craft a subtle merger between European and African-American currents. We see this in the large-scale compositions of James P. Johnson, Ellington's extended pieces, and in the impressionistic works of stride pianists, such as Waller's "African Ripples," and this offering from Willie 'The Lion' Smith.

Of course, the great William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith - okay, let's just call him 'The Lion' - never got too refined, and this work's concert hall polish may be closer to Zez Confey than Debussy. In any event, the leonine keyboardist puts aside the oom-pah stride bass for the first half of this number, and crafts a pastoral melody with a Celtic tinge. But he can't hold back the hot jazz forever, and in mid-song he shifts into fast and furious Harlem stride, tossing out some unexpected syncopations along the way. The end result is halfway between the Harlem rent party and Carnegie Hall -- sort of a tux and stogie event. And who better to serve as our host for some transgressive entertainment than 'The Lion'?

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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