Do you realize that all these Meade Lux Lewis records almost didn't happen? After making his one three-minute side for the Paramount label in December of 1927, Lewis went back to driving a cab in Chicago. And his record didn't sell. So that could have been the end of the story. But in November of 1935 John Hammond looked him up and begged him to get back on the scene. And so began a remarkable career. This chronological survey of Meade's earliest work is delightful. Each successive version of the "Honky Tonk Train Blues" is sharper, more polished. There's always something bubbling away under the surface of the Meade. Everything he played came out slightly wicked. This man played a lot of piano in bars. Nobody could play like this who hadn't come up in an environment like Chicago during the 1920s. There's a weird sense of humor at the root of his style, most conspicuous when heard coming out of the celeste, a sort of keyboard glockenspiel that sounds like a toy. At times, Meade is cheerfully, dependably eccentric. Lewis may, in fact, be the unsuspected, auspicious link between surrealism and the blues. At times he sounds just a tiny bit like Sun Ra or Muhal Richard Abrams. Meade Lux Lewis discovered Jimmy Yancey's woogie piano back in 1921. It was a turning point for the teenaged musician, inspiring him to switch permanently from violin to piano. Meade's own rendition of the "Yancey Special," recorded in 1936, still conveys some of Yancey's wonderful hypnotic gravity. "Boogie Woogie Prayer," a two-part blow-out for three pianists, feels a lot like a freight train passing through town. Was it Hammond's idea to have Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis all playing simultaneously? It was a worthwhile experiment, and for sheer thunder you can't beat piano-six-hands. Still and all it's good to move on into a series of solitary solos. Lewis was a remarkably inventive improviser, incessantly vibrating with idiosyncrasies that make his recordings delightful to listen to at length. When Meade plays slowly and reflectively, he seems like a kindred spirit to his contemporary from Harlem, Thomas "Fats" Waller. A slow blues is one of the most powerful rituals known to humanity. Lewis tapped into these mysteries with an extended set of blues variations recorded for Blue Note on the January 6 1939. The results, augmented with two very slow blues called "Melancholy" and "Solitude" (no relation to the Ellington composition), comprise nearly twenty-eight-minutes of unhurried, unaffected, friendly, soothing piano blues. Everybody ought to hear this stuff! It's wonderfully honest music.
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