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Late Night Piano

Late Night Piano: Willie "The Lion" Smith

by Seth Colter Walls

Late Night Piano: Willie "The Lion" Smith


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What's better company than piano music in the after-work hours? We say nothing, and so we're giving you a series covering key piano innovators, which you can follow here.

This week we're going way back to the beginnings of the Harlem piano tradition to throw the spotlight on a follower of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller who went by the name Willie "The Lion" Smith. Despite the roaring moniker, Smith wasn't a nonstop pounder: He could get downright expressionistic on tunes like his own classic "Echoes of Spring," but as he proved on another original, "Finger Buster," he could dazzle with hardcore piano pyrotechnics, too. We've collected his early high-point solos, drawn from a famous 1939 recording session, and tossed in hot sessions by the pianist's 1930s small group (which went by the name Willie "The Lion" Smith & His Cubs). And, finally, we've included killer selections from some more informal-sounding late-1940s trio recording dates. You can hear Smith commenting on the proceedings (for example, during the rendition of his own "Portrait of the Duke"), which just adds to the intimacy of the proceedings. So click play, get ready to experience a lot of piano playing, and then come back to catch up with our series once again.

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