Willie "The Lion" Smith is unaccompanied on these 1950 sessions originally recorded for Vogue and Commodore. The Vogue material includes Smith's friendly vocals accompanied by his matchless stride piano in "Can You Hear Me" and "Trains and Planes" (which salutes the services of Air France!). Smith narrates along with his piano salute to earlier greats (many of whom never recorded at all) in his two-part "Reminiscing the Piano Greats," a technique he would reprise on his RCA Victor album The Memoirs of Willie "The Lion" Smith and the Black Lion LP Pork and Beans. The instrumentals include a neglected gem written by Smith ("Conversation on Park Avenue"), along with the oldies "Pretty Baby" and "Sweet Sue" (the latter recorded in two parts). The sound on these tracks is far better on this Classics compilation due to the omission of the electronically simulated stereo on the earlier Vogue LP reissue. The last 13 tracks are remakes of pieces first recorded for Commodore in 1939. They were re-recorded for the same label (because producer Milt Gabler thought that the poor fidelity of the original records made them unsuitable for reissue), though the later version of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and six other titles are omitted because of time restrictions. Eight mostly long-forgotten but still valuable compositions by Smith are included (among them "Fading Star," "Fingerbuster," "Morning Air," and "Concentrating") along with the more widely known "Echoes of Spring," though the pianist sounds tentative at times and actually hits a few clams in spots. "The Boy in the Boat" (a piece Smith claimed as his own, but was published by Fats Waller and Clarence Williams as "Squeeze Me") was a raunchy song popular among the stride masters before it was cleaned up for recording. Better are his remakes of standards like "Stormy Weather" and "Tea for Two." Even though Willie "The Lion" Smith is not at the top of his game throughout every session, he remains one of the foremost stride pianists of all time. The rarity of the Commodore selections, last available in the long out of print Mosaic 20-LP boxed set of The Complete Commodore Jazz Recordings, Vol. 3, makes it far less expensive to purchase this Classics CD in its place.
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AllMusic Review by Ken Dryden