DON EWELL

Solo Piano 1967-1973
Chiaroscuro CR (D) 106/127

When we think of Hollywood movies from the late 1940s and 1950s we remember most of them as being a bit corny and very formalistic. Compared to the big budget films of today, starring the likes of Sylvester Stallone and the present governor of California however, the craftsmanship that went into creating those earlier flicks becomes more apparent and admirable.

Looking back you can note a similar situation when it comes to jazzers caught up in the so-called Dixieland revival of around the same time. Compared to modern players like Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, their contributions seemed pretty stilted and rickety-tick, with none of the free-flowing lyricism of true originators like Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong. Yet when you compare their efforts with the embarrassing attempts of the present-day Trad Jazz fraternity or misguided neo-cons like Marcus Roberts who try to play Classic Jazz, you appreciate just what the original revivalists brought to the bandstand.

One of the most accomplished pianists of the lot was Baltimore-born Don Ewell (1916-1983), who is featured on 35 solo selections from 1967 to 1973 that make up this two-CD set. Ewell, who also spent time in the combos of many of jazz’s legendary originators throughout his career — including trombonists Jack Teagarden and Kid Ory plus trumpeter Bunk Johnson — even played piano duets with Harlem stride master Willie “The Lion” Smith. By the time the three original LPs that make up this set were recorded, Ewell was his own man, able to craft his own style from these roots.

No originator, the way his heroes Fats Waller and James P. Johnson were, or someone like Cecil Taylor is, he was still a first class synthesizer, like Red Garland was, or Benny Green is today. On this collection of originals, early jazz standards and ballads, he’s able to bring a little something more to the performances, although listening to this many solos in a similar style, most in the three to four minute length may be a bit much for even the most committed traditionalist.

Although he didn’t play many blues, Ewell actually sounds comfortable when he does so, especially when it’s something like his own “Migrant Worker Blues” which he invests with rolling Jimmy Yancy style tremolos. He further shines on other traditional items such as Morton’s “Sweet Substitute” and “I’m Gonna Stomp Mr. Henry Lee”, best known in a full band version with Teagarden and guitarist Eddie Condon. Mid-tempo, he spends almost five minutes investing the former with the constant strong upbeat and chordal downbeats from the left hand echoing the melody in the right hand. Flowing chords and resonant backbeat characterize the second tine that takes on jolly Waller-like timbres. While it’s fun, Ewell is never less than pianistically sophisticated, sounding out constant counterlines to the main metronomic theme.

He can also put together tour-de-force medleys of related tunes without seemingly raising a sweat. One example is his syncopated pumping piano salute to Earl “Fatha” Hines on “Caution Blues/My Monday Date/Rosetta”, which he invests with multi-faceted dynamics, gliding with a sure touch from more rooted anthemic style to frisky stride lines. There’s also the more jaunty coupling of “Buddy's Habit/Carolina Shout Little Rock Getaway”, where the many notes played don’t mask the balance and rhythmic kinship between the three tunes.

Show tunes and even earlier vaudeville material is treated a little too similarly and superficially however. Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy” might be played as a stomp to bring out it’s underlying cadence, but such familiar standards such as “I’m Coming Virginia”, “Sweet Georgia Brown/Rose of the Rio Grande”, “Thus Swell” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” are treated the same way. After playing the theme he sounds out high frequency boogie-woogie-style variations on the theme, which are pleasant enough and certainly swinging. But while deft, they’re certainly not as heartfelt as his playing on his own tunes and the jazz standards. At times some tracks slide towards high-quality background music. Moderate tempo tunes fare even worse, with something like “100 Years From Today” given an overly ponderous and portentous reading, as sombre as it is slow-paced.

Still, when all is said and done, Ewell taken in manageable doses — as he initially recorded — can be quite palatable. He’s certainly an antidote to the rudimentary attempts at traditional jazz pumped out by players further away from the source.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. Honey Babe 2. Caution Blues/My Monday Date/Rosetta 3. Sweet Georgia Brown/Rose of the Rio Grande 4. Love Will Last 5. Honey Hush 6. Oh! Baby 7. Davenport Blues 8. Deed I Do 9. Save It Pretty Mama/I Want A Little Girl/Cherry 10. CCNY Rioter Blues 11. I’m Coming Virginia 12. Buddy's Habit/Carolina Shout Little Rock Getaway 13. Careless Love 14. Lullaby In Rhythm 15. Delmar Drag 16. Sunday 17. I’m Gonna Stomp Mr. Henry Lee CD 2: 1. Spain 2. Snowy Morning Blues 3. Nobody's Sweetheart 4. Migrant Worker Blues 5. Someday Sweetheart 6. Take It In Stride 7. Sweet Substitute 8. Nice Work If You Can Get It 9. Indian Summer 10. Get Happy 11. Dr. Heckle and Mr. Jibe 12. Meat Rack Blues 13. Someday You'll Be Sorry 14. Thou Swell 15. 100 Years From Today 16. Keeping Out Of Mischief Now 17. Blue Turning Grey Over You 18. Found A New Baby

Personnel: Don Ewell (piano)