In my teens, I read MUSIC ON MY MIND, the autobiography of Willie “the Lion” Smith, and a sentence stuck in my mind, where the Lion mentioned a fifteen-minute duet he and Jo Jones had performed. Jazz history is full of such remembered-but-not-recorded marvels, but this one haunted me, quite pleasantly, because I could imagine the two sounds blending magically.
Although I saw and was spoken to by Jo Jones several times between 1971 and 1983, the Lion had died before I could encounter him in person, and the closest I ever got to him was by spiritual transference through the eminent Mike Lipskin and a few television appearances.
This is the Lion, solo, and so pretty: for Mrs. Keenlyside, if she reads the blog. The other voice, of course, is Albert Edwin Condon, and this is from one of the latter’s concerts, 1944-45:
Having Willie and Jo in duet only in my imagination, it was a lovely surprise to be record-hunting on Eighth Street in 1973 and find a new recording on the Jazz Odyssey label — THE LION AND THE TIGER, duets between my two heroes. The two Elders were in generous sympathy, Willie, for the most part, eschewing the ferocious uptempos he liked in favor of sweetness, and Jo playing with great sensitivity.
When I saw Jo in person in his last years he sometimes played as if he were furious, wishing to annihilate musicians and audience, relying on his ride cymbal. Here, even though the cover shows Jo at a full drum kit (possibly a photograph from Jazz Odyssey’s double-lp set, THE DRUMS) he stays, for the most part, on snare drum, a hi-hat, and his bass drum. And much if not all of his work is wire brushes on the snare, his cymbal used for accents, and his bass drum a lesson in itself. One exception — the closing JAM of under two minutes, a riotous TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME, proves that Jo brought his sticks and ride cymbal, but it’s a glorious mutual impromptu explosion.
I treasured that record, and found more than one copy in my travels. There was a second volume, LE LION, LE TIGER, et LE MADELON, issued in 1975, that I also had and has now vanished. And so had the Lion: it was his final recording. Those two discs contained two dozen performances, perhaps eighty-five minutes of wonderful music.
Please note the enticing “2CD” top left. Were this simply an authorized transfer of the two vinyl recordings to compact disc, it would be a delightful product. But this new issue adds a good deal of previously unheard material, adding up to more than forty tracks, including conversation between the two august participants, for a total of more than two hours of music. And the notes tell us that four more performances will be issued on a future CD.
The record company, Frémeaux & Associés, is not devoted solely to jazz, but they have done chronological CD series devoted to Louis and Django, so they understand where north is.
Here is information about the new issue, comprehensible even to the monolingual. .
The Lion and Jo worked together splendidly. Both could, given less strong-minded players, lean into exhibitionism. (Jo’s recordings in the same period when he was partnered with the organist Milt Buckner are high-intensity and high-volume proof.) I sat through ten-minute drum solos from Jo: astounding but also exhausting, and the Lion was not modest, given the proper audience. But on these sessions, Jo kept Willie on track in tempos, and Willie was not about to let Jo play his CARAVAN solo. (When Jo begins one of his expansive displays, as on CAROLINA SHOUT, the silent awareness that Willie was sitting at the piano reins Jo in.) They sent love to one another in every sixteenth note but there was brotherly restraint in the air.
Unlike some stride piano extravaganzas, these discs do not rely on displays of technique: in fact, the Lion’s affectionate rhapsodic side is more often on display: CHARMAINE, SWEETIE DEAR, and a 6/8 version of TROIS HEURES DU MATIN (for the last dance). And the Lion’s dynamics are a lesson to all pianists: he loved to quietly meander in imagined meadows. His dramatic sense is peerless: begin with a WOLVERINE BLUES that is a half-time sauntering rhapsody before becoming a stride romp with Jo playing sticks on his hi-hat and snare in stop-time passages. (And the notes tell us that four performances will be issued on a future CD.)
But these discs are not soporific. There are riotous stomps — the second SWEET GEORGIA BROWN, the aforementioned JAM, JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS, CAROLINA SHOUT, and others. Although the Lion’s voice occasionally sounds tired, his piano is exuberant and exact: the astonishing end of a fifty-year recording career. And Jo’s playing is precise and masterful. The second disc ends with a nearly ten-minute HERE COMES THE BAND which is, to me, as close to the fifteen-minute unrecorded duet as I and you will ever come.
It was a long way from 1936, but each man was, in himself, the very definition of swing. Put them together and magic larger than magic was the result. Again, details here. So far, it is not available through the usual download purees, nor are there sound samples. You’ll have to be a bit courageous to hear this music. But it rewards the brave searcher many times over.
May your happiness increase!