Tuesday, August 10, 2010

John Lewis: A Jazz Artist of “Restraint, of Control and of Economy”

“Jazz, in the hands of a neoclassicist, is a music of balance, of care, of restraint; with an unabashed lyricism and a subtle sense of formal structure, ….  [T]he neoclassicist can often be distinguished not so much by his positive virtues as by what he excludes.” [paraphrased from Ted Gioia, The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, p. 85]

“With a touch as individual as Basie or Claude Thornhill, and an ever more careful and considered phraseology, … [John Lewis’ pianism] is swing and bebop distilled down to their most lyrical and refined essences.”
Richard Cook and Brian Morton The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed., [p. 904].

“John Lewis’ style is single-noted and highly rhythmic. His simple, seemingly repetitive phrases are generally played just behind the beat, where much of the secret of Jazz lies. He is an emotional pianist – in a transcendental way – and he succeeds, where most pianists fail, in transmitting his emotion.”
Whitney Balliett, American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, p. 240.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The late John Lewis [1920-2001] and Oscar Peterson [1925-2007] were both Jazz pianists. But any similarity between them ends with that declarative statement.

Stylistically, they are as different as night and day.

For proof of this assertion, all one need do is listen to Oscar Peterson play his break-neck speed version of Clifford Brown’s Daahoud and then try to find anything remotely resembling it in the entire catalog of John Lewis recordings. Oscar plays more notes in one rendering of Daahoud than John plays on an entire album.

[BTW – did I mentioned that I am a big fan of OP’s Daahoud?]

This contrast in Jazz piano styles was once again brought home to me while working on a recent profile of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie when I stumbled upon the following 1946 photo of Diz’s big band at the Spotlite club with none other than John Lewis in the piano chair.

Talk about a flurry of notes – Dizzy Gillespie in his early years and in a big band, no less!

What in the world was John Lewis doing in the piano chair of such a band – a pianist who could rival Count Basie for pecking out the fewest notes in a chorus of 12-bar blues?

As the story goes, Bud Powell, whose fast and furious right-hand phrasing was a more appropriate fit for the piano chair, was AWOL again, bringing about Dizzy’s insertion of Lewis as a last-minute substitute for the gig at the Spotlite club.

For the most part, pianists are largely superfluous in a big band [you can’t hear them], so I doubt that anyone listening very closely to Diz’s band at the time would have noticed the difference.

But I did and in so doing it helped me realize that I had been wanting to spend some time developing a piece about John Lewis, an interest that was further enhanced after a recent JazzProfiles feature on Ted Gioia’s The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture and his analysis of Neoclassicism in Jazz as noted in the following, somewhat modified quotation [pp.84-85]:

“… the Neoclassicists of Jazz, like Neoclassicists in other arts, … attempt to pare away the excesses of previous generations to reveal an art that is pristine and timeless.

Their paradigm is the sculptor, whose work emerges from sharply cut and precisely defined lines, and whose warmth of expression is tempered by the cool, distant, and unforgiving medium with which he works.

The Neoclassicist recognizes that self-restraint is the essence of artistic style. A style which includes everything ceases to be a style – it has become an encyclopedia of techniques.

The artist who embraces all of these techniques has, by the same token, reduced himself to a mere craftsman. Art begins only when some techniques are favored, others discarded.

Jazz, for these artists, is not just the music of possibilities, but rather of constrained possibilities.”

John Lewis fits perfectly into the Neoclassic approach to Jazz.

Not surprisingly, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, who is the primary example that Ted uses to support his premise of Neoclassicism in Jazz, always wanted to perform in concert with John Lewis and The Modern Jazz Quartet [MJQ].

His wish was granted on December 25, 1971 at Town Hall in New York City.

[As an aside and for those readers who may not be aware, John is best known as the pianist and musical director of the MJQ, one Jazz’s most enduring combos, and Paul Desmond was a member of legendary pianist Dave Brubeck’s Quartet for over 15 years]

As Irving Townsend explains in his insert notes to a posthumously issued CD that captured the music that was played that evening [paragraphing modified]:

[Following their initial meeting in San Francisco in the mid-1950s] it is not difficult to understand … the developing friendship between the two men or their admiration for each other’s music.

Each was soft-spoken, shy of lime lighted celebrity which by then had caught them in its glare.

They were contemporaries both in age and in Jazz, each a distinctive voice in what was at that time something new, a permanently established small group whose music was bound neither by the previous perimeters of Jazz nor by the calisthenics of night club entertainment.

…. There is a handful of instrumentalists whose playing redefines the instrument. Paul Desmond was one of that handful.”

Of the 1971 Christmas Day union between the MJQ and Desmond, John Lewis – appropriately -  put it more succinctly: “I guess we always thought about things the same way and finally it happened.”

Mr. Townsend assertion about Paul Desmond redefining the alto saxophone refers to the sound that he achieved on the horn; one that is sometimes called a subtone. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz defines this as:

“A soft, caressing, breathy tone produced by carefully controlled suppression of the higher partials of a note. Subtone is produced by means of a small, slow, but steady stream of air, projected through a tight embouchure; the player must blow firmly to prevent the sound from breaking or fading altogether, but gently so that the upper partials of the note are not produced.” [p. 1168]

Obviously, the analogy between Paul and John cannot be pushed so far as to assert that Lewis changed the sound of the piano.

But at a time when most Jazz pianists were embracing bebop phrasing with it multiplicity of notes played in a fast and furious fashion, John Lewis opted for a more succinct almost laconic style.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz offers this description of John’s playing [paragraphing modified]:

“Lewis is among the most conservative of bop pianists. His improvised melodies, played with a delicate touch are usually simple and quiet; the accompaniments are correspondingly light, with Lewis’ left hand just grazing the keys to produce a barely audible sound.

His method of accompanying soloists is similarly understated: rather than comping – punctuating the melody with irregularly placed chords – he often plays simple counter-melodies in octaves which combine with the solo and bass parts to form a polyphonic texture.

…. Many of Lewis’ solos have a degree of motivic unity which is rare in Jazz. For example, in Bluesology [1956] each chorus of his solo builds on the previous one by establishing a link from the end of one chorus to the beginning of the next.

As … [his] solo progresses, Lewis subjects its opening motif to inversion, chromatic alterations, and a variety of other alterations in pitch and shape, which nevertheless retain their links with the basic figure [i.e.: motif].[p. 695]

Given all of this, maybe John does change the sound of the piano after all?!

More insights into what makes John Lewis’ kind of Jazz so singular and satisfying are to be found in the following inserts notes to his album Kansas City Breaks [Red Barron JK57759], which Dan Morgensten, the distinguished Jazz critic and current Director, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, has graciously granted copyright permission to replicate.

John’s choice for the instrumentation on this recording assures it of an almost chamber music quality as he is joined by Joe Kennedy, Jr. on violin, Frank Wess on flute, Howard Collins on guitar, and John, Marc Johnson and Shelly Manne on piano, ass and drums, respectively.

In order to give JazzProfiles readers the opportunity to sample John’s music from Kansas City Breaks, the editorial staff has selected this group’s performance of Django, probably John’s most famous composition, as the audio track and set it to this YouTube tribute to John Lewis.

© -Dan Morgenstern. Reprinted with permission; copyright protected, all rights reserved.

“Throughout his long and distinguished career, John Lewis has created so much remarkable and beautiful music that it seems presumptuous to speak of landmarks. Nevertheless, I'll go out on a limb and call this remarkably beautiful album a John Lewis landmark.

It brings to first fruition some ideas about a new and fresh combination of instruments that have been taking shape over a number of years, starting not long after the breakup (after a record near quarter-century) of the Modern Jazz Quartet. (That the MJQ would eventually be reconstituted from time to time was inevitable, but it clearly no longer occupies a central position in Lewis's musical life.)

Soon after Lewis began to teach at New York's City College, he formed a student group with the unusual instrumentation heard here, and in 1975, he made an album for Columbia, "P.O.V." on which a similar combination (substituting cello for guitar) was presented. But one need only compare the 1975 version of Lyonhead with the 1982 one to realize that a lot has happened since then.

Much closer to the new conception was the music, recorded in the spring of 1981, heard on "The John Lewis Album for Nancy Harrow" (Finesse FW 37681), which essentially introduced the John Lewis Group—the only differences being that Connie Kay was on drums, and that the ensemble's primary function was to provide a lovely framework for Nancy Harrow.

It was the artistic success of this venture that sparked the album at hand, and it is a pleasure to announce that the John Lewis Group will not confine its existence to the recording studios, but will perform live as well — and often, one hopes. The Group is already so well integrated and fine tuned and has achieved such a high level of empathy that it must take its place in the front ranks of jazz ensembles.

That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of John Lewis, which from the start has been synonymous with a very special kind of excellence in which creativity and craftsmanship—both of the highest order—combine with inspiration and elegance. In the world of jazz, the term composer is often misused and misunderstood. Suffice it to say that John Lewis is a composer in the truest sense and a true jazz composer. And a great player as well; a true improviser.

There is no conflict in Lewis between these roles. Rather, they complement each other and co-exist in perfect balance. Form and order serve as springboards for adventure, surprise and that sense of playfulness (the sense in which the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga uses it: "Play casts a spell over us... it is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiv­ing in things: rhythm and harmony") without which there can be no true jazz... or real music.

The John Lewis Group at play is a joy to the ear and the heart. There is no striving for effects, no pretense; just pure music-making invested with unity of purpose. This is indeed a group-a unit—in which distinctive musical personalities come together without clashes of egos. For John Lewis is not only a great composer and instrumentalist, he is also a great leader.

He has chosen well. There are some established players here, to say the least. It is unlikely that any reader of these notes will need an introduction to Shelly Manne, one of the most accomplished and versatile percussionists in jazz, but it is worth noting that this, to the best of my knowledge, is his first recorded collaboration with Lewis. A case of instant rapport. Frank Wess, too, is justly famous as the man who, more than any other, established the flute in jazz. That he is also a more than accomplished composer-arranger surely does him no harm in this context (which, incidentally, is the most stimulating in which he has been heard of late).

Joe Kennedy, Jr. has, finally, become somewhat better known. Fine jazz violinists have always been scarce, and the instrument is not as fully appreciated in jazz circles as it deserves to be. Kennedy made his first records in 1945, worked and recorded with (and wrote for) Ahmad Jamal in the '50s (also making an album of his own that was a well-kept secret), and then settled in Rich­mond, Virginia where he is Supervisor of Music for the public school system and concert master of the local symphony. He also happens to be Benny Carter's cousin, and the great man recently coaxed him out into the jazz world again, taking him on tours to Japan and Europe and major U.S. festivals. Last year Kennedy was featured on a Billy Taylor album (the pianist, who worked for Eddie South and Stuff Smith, knows a good violinist when he hears one), and then on the aforementioned Nancy Harrow LP. I've been a fan of Joe's for many years, and think he's never been heard in a better setting than here.

Marc Johnson, the youngster of the group, was in Bill Evans's last trio—not a job for a beginner—and then with Stan Getz. He has also worked in a duo setting with John Lewis, who called him "one of the best I've ever played with'.' His work here bears out that judgment. We've come to take remarkable bassists for granted, but Marc Johnson will surprise you.

Howard Collins is one of the last of that rare and selfless breed, the willing rhythm guitarist. He performs this demanding but unsung task wonderfully well, but that's not all he can do, or is asked to do here. Howie's been around for a while, but not lately in such good company. 

The program here is a varied one, demonstrating the scope and range of John Lewis's composing and arranging gifts, and, not incidentally, the durability of his best pieces. Work of four decades is represented, but D&E, vintage 1951, sounds as fresh as the brand-new Kansas City Breaks. Perhaps that is because the eternal verities, not least among them melodic strength and grace, have always been foremost in Lewis's writing, but surely it is also because he has always been able, to a remarkable degree, to find fresh new ways to present his classics. (That's not the only thing John Lewis and Duke Ellington have in common; another might be a love for and profound understanding of the blues—form and content. There's a lot of blues here, in a lot of guises.)

Django is a case in point. Quite possibly the most famous Lewis piece, it was in the MJQ's repertoire for more than 20 years but never grew stale. It has been re-interpreted here with such imagination and freshness that it sounds delightfully new. It also serves to introduce some of the many textures, colors and nuances the group has at its disposal, for one instance, the combination of bowed bass, low violin and bottom flute that backs Lewis's stately recapitulation of the theme.

Sacha's March begins with Manne's distant parade drums, then the band comes into view. Shelly's extensive solo work reminds me of Zutty Singleton—it has that spirit. There are fine solos by Wess, still the flute master, and Kennedy, who enters a la Stuff Smith and swings as hard as that paragon of jazz fiddle. But the main event is the wonderful interplay.

Lyonhead, dedicated to Jimmy Lyons of Monterey fame, stems from the score to a documentary film, "Cities for People'.' The almost pointillist sections that frame the solos (by Lewis, spare, skipping and with a crystal sound; Kennedy, and Wess, the latter with brilliant Manne support) are out-of-tempo and through-composed, making for fine contrast with the lively, swinging improvisations.

Winter Tale, from the score for the 1962 film "A Milanese Story,' is a moody piece with a lovely melody, introduced by Kennedy with a gypsy feeling and exposed by Lewis and Wess. When Kennedy resumes in the lead, Wess dances around him. Eddie South would have loved Kennedy's closed statement.

Valeria, from the same film score, has a latinesque beat and feeling. Everybody is in splen­did form, and the rhythm section's work is outstanding. Manne builds a brushfire under Lewis, who gets into a characteristic double-time groove, and Johnson's lively bass lines are a joy. A unique touch is the flute-and-piano unison stuff behind the violin in the closing ensemble passages.

D and E is a sunny blues, beautifully scored — all the voices interwoven in what is essentially a feature for Marc Johnson, who, among other things, plays a terrific cadenza. There are witty solos by piano, violin and flute, and Collins's steady strum is in evidence.

Kansas City Breaks continues the happy mood and also has a prominent role for the bass, notably in an extended dialog, first with Wess, then with Lewis (whose ideas are charming here), punctuated by Shelly's triangle. Again, the voicings are lovely, including some three-way pizzicato activity. A masterpiece that affirms the living roots of jazz.

Milano, a pretty waltz composed in 1954, finds the piano in the spotlight, exposing the melody with serene dignity. Lewis the master accompanist is also in evidence, behind Wess's improvisa­tion on the theme. The flute and violin unison figures are yet another indication of the group's varied palette. A perfect closing to a splendid set.

The John Lewis Group is a bright new presence on the jazz scene. The high standards it has set for itself here are what one would expect from John Lewis, but nothing else about this music is predictable. It is very good to know that such music can still be made, for it proves that tradi­tion and innovation are not opposing forces. The message is clear and strong. Listen!

Dan Morgenstern, Director, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers Univ. (1982)”

And no one writes more descriptively about music with words than the Dean of Jazz writers, Whitney Balliett who provided the insert notes to John Lewis’ Grand Encounter Pacific Jazz album [1217;Toshiba EMI CD – TOCJ-6115]. These follow Dan’s notes.

© -Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Nostalgia is cheap witchcraft. It is also an old looking glass, which reflects, however dimly, chairs that are chairs and light that is light. Thus, in jazz, where nostalgia often passes as critical judgment, there is frequently moist talk of Chick Webb and the Savoy Ballroom, of Bix Beiderbecke hammering out gorgeous metals in person that he never recorded, of Buddy Bolden stifl­ing the waters of Lake Ponchartrain. But these things are at least half true, and probably more. In the same fashion, it is more than half true that the area of jazz now most nostalgia-fixed - the years, roughly, between 1935-1945 - has proved re­markably durable.

In this period one hears, to be sure, chuffy rhythm sections, paralytic tempos, a sometimes thin and purposeless suavity, and instrumentalists who were more expert embellishers than improvisers. One also hears, though, an undated sweetness and inter­dependent relaxation and unhurry — where soloists were means and not ends — that produced in Billie Holiday's singing, Harry Edison's bellying trumpet, or Sid Catlett's majestic drumming, a kind of jazz that elevated artlessness to art. Much of the free lyricism that resulted has, for the present at any rate, gone out of jazz, which is, inevitably, busy with techniques. It can still be found, however, in the work of Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Ruby Braff, Teddy Wilson, and Count Basie, as well as among modernists like Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Hank Jones, Joe Wilder, Joe Morello, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. (It can also be heard everywhere on this record,- which though modern in its overtones, is full of the old poetry; as a result, the record wears like Harris tweed, and is, perhaps, one of the great jazz records, which is not a liner-note puff but a subjective truth.)

Much of the musical success of the Modern Jazz Quartet, which is the most plausibly inventive group to appear since the Davis-Mulligan 1949 Capitol band, must be credited to John Lewis, its pianist and "musical director." For Lewis, a gentle, shy, bearded man in his mid-thirties, is an exceptional jazz com­poser. He is also a unique and invariably moving jazz pianist, a fact that few people have bothered with. Lewis' style is much like that of the late, underappreciated Clyde Hart. Basically, it is a single-note attack, supplemented by light chording or occa­sional melodic counter-figures in the left hand. His touch is sure and delicate, his ideas are disarmingly simple and honest. He has a rhythmic sense and enough technique to allow him easy freedom. One rarely hears an arpeggio — unless it is used func­tionally — or much block chording. Also, there is none of the metallic sweat so fashionable in the work of pianists like Hamp­ton Hawes and Horace Silver. Lewis, indeed, has a kind of dogged, floating quality in his playing; he seems to slide beneath, above, and around his materials - like, in a sense, the best of the New Orleans clarinetists-brightening them, deepening them with emotion, filling the chinks. In addition to being what amounts to a classical jazz soloist, Lewis is one of the few great supporting jazz pianists. (Lewis would never sanction the first statement; before he made this record, he had consistently refused to make a solo piano recording, feeling that jazz should be, as it is in the work of the MJQ, a collective expression.) Lewis, as a supportive pianist, again resembles Clyde Hart. (Listen to Hart behind Lionel Hampton's vocal on the latter's Victor record of "Confessin' " or his fill-ins around Lips Page's singing on the Savoy version of "Uncle Sam Blues." Then listen here to Lewis as he moves in beneath Jim Hall on the first bridge of "Skylark", and behind Bill Perkins in the first chorus of "Almost Like Being in Love.") Where most pianists simply supply cold, boring back­ground chords, Lewis like Jess Stacy, Hank Jones, or Billy Kyle, either plays an enfiring subordinate second line or chords that amplify or embroider purposely what is going on in front.

This record was made in one afternoon a few months ago in a small, empty theatre in Los Angeles. Largely an accident, it is composed of men — outside of the two teams of Lewis-Heath (the MJQ) and Hamilton-Hall (Hamilton's Quintet) -who or­dinarily do not work together or have not played together at all. As such, it is: like Armstrong's 'Knockin' a Jug", a "motherless" session. Some of the great jazz records have been motherless sessions: many of Lionel Hampton's pick-up sides made in the late Thirties on Victor; Red Norvo's Comet session in 1945 with Parker, Gillespie, Phillips, Teddy Wilson, and Slam Stewart; the Teddv Wilson-Harry James-John Simmons-Red Norvo "Just a Mood." The head arrangements were done on the spot by Lewis, who acted as musical overseer for the date, and also contributed the blues-original, "Two Degrees East — Three Degrees West", a charming, infectious figure that should be expanded into a work for the MJQ. Elsewhere, Lewis's touch is evident in the quiet tempos, the unstrained swinging, the overall, persuasive warmth.

Bill Perkins, who acts as a kind of co-leader here, was born in 1924 in San Francisco. He holds a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a degree in Electrical Engineer­ing from Cal. Tech. Although he has played with both Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, he has not been a full time profes­sional jazz musician much over five years. His style, at present, is an intelligent offshoot of the sunny drybones school of Lester Young and Stan Getz. It is a flowing, melodic approach that em­ploys few notes, a sense of languor, and a big, gentle tone. There is none of the hair-pulling, the bad tone, or the ugliness that is now a growing mode, largely in New York, among the work of the hard-bopsters like Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobely, and J. R. Montrose. His solos here on the blues, on "Easy Living", and "Love Me or Leave Me", are excellent lyrical tenor saxophone, and represent his best recorded work to date.

Jim Hall was born in New York and is twenty-five. He, too, has been a professional for only a few years. His style is remark­ably similar to that of Charlie Christian, especially in the direct way he strikes his notes, and in his practice of repeating certain single notes and simple figures. Some of the best modern guitar­ists have a tendency toward slipperiness and laciness. Hall, how­ever, gives each note weight, with such intent that his work occa­sionally has a kind of puggish, lumbering quality about it, which is not at all unpleasant.

Percy Heath, in comparison with Hall, is a veteran of thirty-three and is one of the soundest rhythm bassists in jazz, as well as a pleasing, unobtrusive soloist. (Some of the newer jazz bas­sists would make a full orchestra out of their instrument.)

Chico Hamilton, at thirty-five, is, with Shelly Manne and Joe Morello one of the few younger drummers who have absorbed the lessons of sprung drumming, as taught by Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, but at the same time have retained the purpose of the drummer as a sensitive, sympathetic supporter.

Most of the music here is self-explanatory. Of particular in­terest, however, are these items: the simple ingenuity of the first four choruses of "Two Degrees East — Three Degrees West," in which Perkins and Hall play a unison figure with spaced bass and tom-tom beats below them, are joined midway in the second chorus by Lewis, then drift into the background for the follow­ing two choruses while Heath solos; Lewis's appealing, yet al­most static, rendition of "I Can't Get Started"; the marvelously oblique, lazy-seeming piano introductions on "Love Me Or Leave Me" and "Almost Like Being in Love", which also has some dis­creet yet forceful solo brush work by Hamilton, mostly in ex­changes with Hall and Perkins; the way, in Perkins's third chorus in "Almost", Lewis picks up Perkins's last few bars before the bridge and repeats them throughout the bridge behind Perkins; all of "Love Me Or Leave Me", which is an almost perfect jazz recording.

None of the tempos here is above a fast walk. The loudest sound is Perkins's restrained tenor. The materials are traditional, the approach even a little old-fashioned. This is not, however, pursed chamber jazz, where the music blows lilies. Rather, it is full of the sort of understated power and inspiration that ran through so much of jazz ten or fifteen years ago, which is a blessed event.”

We thought it might be fitting to close this piece on John Lewis with the following YouTube which uses the arrangement of Django that appears on The Modern Jazz Society Presents a Concert of Contemporary Music [MG N -1040; Verve 314 559 827-2]. Richard Cook and Brian Morton awarded it a “Crown” designation as an recording deserving of special merit and offered this review in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

“One of the great forgotten masterpieces of the 1950s, this brilliant date is still available only as a limited-edition reissue in Verve Connoisseur Edition. Collectors are advised to snap up any copies they see, although it’s disgraceful that this classic should not be more easily available. The Modern Jazz Society was an initiative by Lewis and [Gunther] Schuller to present new works and new arrangements, broadly in the “Third Stream” vein which Schuller encouraged. Lewis was only the supervisor of the original LP, but new discoveries -  … - find him at the piano.

The five principal pieces are all Lewis compositions, and they are among the finest treatments of “Little David’s Fugue,” “Django,” and “The Queen’s Fancy,” ever set down.” Django, with its final coda taken at the stately pace of a cortege, is so bewitching that it can silence a room.” [p. 903]