Willie “The Lion” Smith / Don Ewell / Claude Hopkins / Sir Charles Thompson – Grand Piano
This two CD set is a reissue of three LPs focusing on the rich solo piano heritage of the music. Don Ewell and Willie The Lion Smith recorded their classic album in 1966 in the middle of a lengthy engagement at Toronto’s Golden Nugget. These duets, full of fire, are remarkable examples of the fully formed two-handed Harlem Stride school epitomized by The Lion, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. The Lion sets the pace and Ewell responds with his own blend of stride figures and the New Orleans flavors of Jelly Roll Morton.
This recording, originally on the Exclusive label, came into being through the efforts of Patrick Scott, the sometimes irascible jazz critic of Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper. He later passed it on to Sackville when he realized he wasn’t interested in the role of record mogul!
Claude Hopkins enjoyed a lengthy career as pianist and bandleader. He grew up in Washington where he, Duke Ellington and Cliff Jackson were all touched by the brilliance of the Harlem Stride school of pianists. All three were to incorporate elements of the style in their own piano concepts. Soliloquy is one of two solo piano records made by Claude Hopkins towards the end of his career. It is quietly elegiac. His fine work as a band pianist can be heard on the Sackville recordings by Wild Bill Davison’s The Jazz Giants and Herb Hall’s Old Tyme Modern. There are also three outstanding small group recordings reissued on CD by Fantasy from the Prestige/Swingville catalog.
Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson were the link between the Harlem soloists and the more linear stylists of the 1940s epitomised by pianists like Bud Powell. Sir Charles Thompson is an example of a transitional figure who has drawn upon all these various techniques in the shaping of his own uniquely identifiable style. Following work with Nat Towles, Floyd Ray and Lional Hampton he really made his mark in performances and recordings with Coleman Hawkins and Illinois Jacquet in the mid 1940s. In the 1950s he can be heard on definitive recordings under his own name for Vanguard as well as being a participant in The Vic Dickenson Showcase for Vanguard (with Ruby Braff and Edmond Hall). His lengthy association with Buck Clayton included the legendary version of his own Robbins Nest (for Columbia) and the two Buck & Buddy dates for Prestige/Swingville.
All the various elements of Thompson’s unique piano style can be heard in his Portrait Of A Piano. It was recorded in 1984 while Thompson was in Toronto for performances at Cafe des Copains. Thompson, now in his eighties, is still active (check out his in performance recordings for Delmark) in music and golf.