I’d heard pianist Mike Lipskin in New York City in the Seventies, and treasured his recording with his mentor Willie “The Lion” Smith, CALIFORNIA HERE I COME — appropriately — but what the Beloved and I heard tonight at San Francisco’s Pier 23 was a delightful revelation. Mike led a trio with Clint Baker, trumpet and clarinet, and Paul Mehling, leader of the Hot Club of San Francisco, guitar. Their interplay was delicious — a gleeful tossing back and forth of phrases and musical ideas — but Mike has remained one of the contemporary giants of Harlem stride piano.
Stride playing is an athletic art (ask anyone from Stephanie Trick to Dick Hyman to Rossano Sportiello) and even the greatest players occasionally falter as they come out of middle age. Mike Lipskin’s fastball still blazes.
It’s not simply that he plays rocketing tempos, but his time is steady (no matter what the groove) and his inventions dazzling without being exhibitionistic. And his style is his own — not simply a collection of mannerisms learned from the Lion and the great players he heard and followed — Donald Lambert, Cliff Jackson, and others. So although he may whimsically offer a Fats gesture or a Lion roar, he is always creating small surprises, key changes and small modulations in the manner of a far less rococo Tatum. He doesn’t call attention to such things, and they could slide by listeners absorbed in the greater aural picture, but his playing is a series of small explosions that serve the song rather than detract from it.
Mike, Clint, and Paul offered music that was at once complex, endlessly rooted in the traditions and common language, but remained sweet and clear. Special pleasures were several Ellington medleys, a rocking SPREADIN’ RHYTHM AROUND, a somber I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA, a sweet MEMORIES OF YOU and IF I HAD YOU, and a few hallowed but little-played Thirties songs, ZING! WENT THE STRINGS OF MY HEART and I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU — all played in ways that were both witty and heartfelt. Clint and Paul distinguished themselves by deep melodic playing, taking risks, and swinging out in ensemble and solo.
Someone as devoted to his video camera as I am occasionally takes a rest: I’d decided it would be a refreshing way to spend an evening with the Beloved where I wasn’t staring at the viewfinder, so there is no video evidence to accompany this. But anyone willing to spend an extra minute on YouTube can find videos of this trio captured by the assiduous RaeAnn Berry . . . and I might have some good things for JAZZ LIVES in future. Mike will be playing solo at Bix Restaurant in San Francisco this coming Saturday and two Sundays a month (call ahead) and you can visit here to keep up with his schedule and recordings.
He’s absolutely genuine: a true explorer of those sacred arts.
May your happiness increase!