A striking evolution in jazz: Exclusive interview with Eric Lewis

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Not without a struggle (and a measure of healthy angst), acclaimed pianist Eric Lewis is driving the next evolution of jazz — forging new musical alloys of classic blue note scuttles, delicate improvisations and heady alt rock hooks. Now, with a roster of sold-out shows and a growing list of celebrity supporters, his iconoclastic arrangements are fast catching insular music communities’ attention. His possessed, finger-bloodying performances have erased a few old taboos, too: Miles Davis and Linkin Park suddenly seem less dissimilar.

The TED Blog interviewed Eric Lewis by phone on Wednesday to find out what brought him from a strictly jazz repertoire into the intense explorations of rock music that brought the TED2009 crowd to its feet. Here’s a snippet:

The irony of it all, at the end of all this, is I ended up doing what jazz musicians have always done: taking pop culture tunes and playing their own variations upon them. It’s all so funny, because now the jazz community is starting to embrace me, slowly but surely. It’s a weird, circuitous, cyclical, ironic, paradoxical story.

Read the full interview with Eric Lewis, after the jump >>Transcript of interview with Eric Lewis (3/4/09):

How did the big late-night party at the Westin Hotel at TED2009 come about?

After the welcome gala that was had the first night, a few of us were looking for something more to do. So we went over to the Westin Hotel because during registration I noticed there was a piano in the lobby, and I said, “Well, why don’t I play a little?” That evening we had about 20 people come by and we had a nice little get-together, a little soiree. But then word got out that that’s what we had done that night. So, next night, we did it again….

What’s your weapon of choice?

I’m endorsed by Yamaha. I represent Yamaha, and I really like the way that piano handles and capacitates the force that I put into it without losing the shape of the sound and the contour, and it really holds up well. It was really built for that kind of a performance and that kind of music, sonically. So I really like the Yamaha grand.

Your stage performance began in a confrontational way, with something less accessible, more noisy at first, that became more harmonic as it went on.

That was a tune called “Going Under.” That tune is all about getting through a phase of despondency, a period of depression. In the beginning, I start off doing effects that you would usually hear in horror movies. I was using the inside of the piano to execute some of the effects, just so I could simulate and establish the mood of paranoia, despondency and despair. Once that was established, I was able to go into the body of the song and start dealing with the lyrics and the lyrical content of the song.

For those Evanescence fans who are familiar with that song, they would recognize what I was doing with it as far as just the variations of the themes and so-forth. That opening abstraction is simply designed to throw everyone out of their comfort zone, throw everyone into a place of paranoia and something that reminds them of despair, so as to set the stage for the story that the song will tell, and the ultimate resolve to survive and to carry on through the inner turmoil that is perpetuating and permeating the song.

Tell me about how you came from a strictly jazz approach to a place where you’re reimagining songs from rock and pop.

What I’m doing, in its own sweet, ironic, paradoxical way, is really what jazz musicians have always done, from Humphrey Bogart to “Hello Dolly.” They would take pop culture pieces and personalize them. Even John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” is from The Sound of Music; it’s another example of this. It’s only recently, due to some sort of prejudice, that jazz musicians, by and large, or by virtue of the institutions, have decided to eschew pop culture and its music — much to its own detriment, I must say. It really has become economically depressed in that field, and a lot of the mentalities are depressed as well, due to this kind of prejudice, and typically that’s what prejudice does — it has that kind of crippling effect.

I experienced a lot of angst and turmoil in the community because I came to New York in the hopes of being like a Miles Davis, being like a Coltrane, even though the typical thought process is that no one can ever be like those guys. So I came to believe that I could — wanting to be that, wanting to be an innovator, wanting to do something explosive and great. And because of my desire to do this, it put me at odds with a lot of individuals who had different agendas. Ultimately, I was really upset about the fact that I was never granted a record deal by a major jazz label, even though I won the largest competition for jazz — the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, I won that; typically you get a record deal after that. I had toured the world, recorded with Wynton Marsalis, Elvin Jones, Roy Hargrove, yet still none of that was enough in the eyes of the powers that were or be to grant me that one wish that I could have my own recording career and share my ideas. And so that really hurt me.

I also had a lot of immaturities and naivetes that were enmeshed with my character. However, still, no one says that you have to be some sort of perfect individual to get a record deal. Once I noticed that I was being judged on the basis of priorities that had very little to do with my playing ability and my fidelity to the zeitgeist of jazz — once I noticed this kind of thing happening, I started to feel very betrayed and hurt. And also worried. Because I wanted to have my own career. I wanted to stretch my wings and have my own voice.

However, the economic landscape seemed very narrow and bleak in regards to me actually trying to make that happen, and especially with the help of any record label, which is what I supposed would happen because I was patterning my career after what I had seen with a lot of other masters. They would do sort of an apprenticeship with another master, and then after that apprenticeship they’d break away and get their own interests and their own deals. So I did my apprenticeship with Elvin Jones, Wynton, Roy Hargrove, Cassandra Wilson, but when it was all said and done, there was no pile of records.

I spent a period of time really despondent and upset with trying to fight through it all, and finally I managed to get my technique to a different level. I was listening one day to a record by Linkin Park called Meteora. It was the first time that I had ever purchased a rock record. Prior to that time, I was very much a jazz purist, and that’s why I had gone so far in the jazz world. However, that purism didn’t work for me. So then I finally broke that habit and checked out Linkin Park on the recommendation of some people who heard me describing something that I wanted to do in music. And it really opened me up.

I heard the song “Somewhere I Belong,” and to hear Chester Bennington scream reminded me of Coltrane howling and wailing on the saxophone, and the harmonies they were using reminded me of Miles Davis, and reminded me of Puccini. And then the power of the drums reminded me of Elvin Jones. And the clarity of the bass reminded me of the power of the orchestra.

I noticed there was no piano in all this. And that’s when I saw opportunity to expand my piano technique into the guitar realm. Suddenly a new door opened. I had a whole new approach to begin working on. It took another three years to get the strength level that I needed to be able to play these songs and play them effectively.

Also I was inspired by Lizst and Chopin and their salon culture, where they have their TEDsters at their salons. At those salons, they’d be performing their immortal classics. I tried to combine the rockstar flair of Liszt with the alternative, hard-rock guitar culture of America with the improv culture of jazz with the orchestral culture of Beethoven, and put it all together. Now I’ve got something innovative and in my own voice, which is what I set out to get to in the first place.

I had no idea I would end up in this particular genre. All I’m doing is taking jazz to the next place in a bold fashion, somewhat controversial. However, each one of these songs that I play means a lot to me. For example, “Mr. Brightside.” I use that song to get over what I perceived as betrayal by the jazz community at some level.

The irony of it all, at the end of all this, is I ended up doing what jazz musicians have always done: taking pop culture tunes and playing their own variations upon them. It’s all so funny, because now the jazz community is starting to embrace me, slowly but surely. It’s a weird, circuitous, cyclical, ironic, paradoxical story.

In the broader sense, how do you define your music now, and how does that shape what your audience will grow to be?

Simply, I’m playing modern jazz. Honestly, all I’m doing, truly, is the re-definition of the jazz purist ethic. I’m taking from the culture, in basically kind of an Andy Warhol fashion. I’m going to call my first CD “Pop Art,” because I’m inspired by Andy Warhol’s way of doing things, silk-screening Marilyn Monroe, painting Campbell’s Soup cans, things like that. However, ultimately, all I’m doing is what jazz musicians have always done, from Coltrane to Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker. Those guys, they played songs by Gershwin, by Cole Porter, by Rodgers and Hammerstein. But now I’m playing music by Linkin Park, Coldplay, Evanescence.

There’s a trend in music — the “ironic cover.” You’ll see a rock band take a song that’s decidedly not rock, and shape into a rock song, but everybody’s sort of winking at one another. Your approach, to contrast, seems incredibly sincere.

The reason it’s so sincere is because the emotions I feel are so sincere. The emotions that these songs inspire from me are really sincere.

Guys were calling me crazy in the jazz world. It was upsetting, especially with my immature mind. To come through all of that and to finally get free by letting go of a prejudice — a prejudice that I had adopted through institutions and to try to be a part of a certain club — meant a lot to me, especially being a person of African American descent.

To suddenly realize that the prejudiced behavior I had learned in that world — being condescending and elitist — was the most crippling thing that I could have ever learned, and to be finally granted freedom of spirit through the emotion that’s thrown out through rock, is incredibly liberating for me. All my dreams are starting to come true. All my work is starting to become recognized and appreciated. It’s terribly emotional for me, extremely emotional, and these songs that I’ve selected capacitate that emotion that I feel.

I’m expriencing the freedom of emotion and art that, for whatever reason, I was totally inhibited or impeded from having in the jazz world, as I was treated as some sort of loser, some sort of crazy guy, like, “Yeah, he’s got a lot of technique, he can play, but he’s nobody we really want to do anything with.”

Just because people like rock doesn’t make them dumber, or something like that. In fact, I’m finding that, in a lot of cases, this rock music has, first of all, been extremely technically challenging for me. This music has taught me a lot about America. It’s taught me a lot about myself. It’s taught me a lot about accomplishment, about beauty, about art. The condescension and elitism would have me believe that rock music is for dumb people, for people immature emotionally, this music is for people who are narrow. I’m finding the complete opposite. It’s an utter and total fallacy, and it’s a product of people who are jealous of the economic fertility of rock music, which comes from the ragtime tradition of America, from the Appalachian and the country music of America.

You see yourself as stepping into the next evolution of jazz, past the pretenses and into something more meaningful. In that same vein, what do you think is going to happen in the next few years to music in general?

I think we’re back to the time of Liszt and Chopin. The iPod has taken away the whole platinum record sales prospect. Sincerity and specificity are going to be the hot commodities in music. Everybody can have anything that they want, so now it gets into what specifically you have to give.

All the barriers of entry are getting eroded, as far as being a part of the industry-record company control-radio station thing that’s basically been broken by the technology of the iPod and the Internet. It’s about how well the artist is taking care of the audience. It’s a very beautiful time.

In a sense, it’s more difficult for the musician. But on the other side, it’s also much broader. There are so many outlets. So many things that could happen. Just like at the Westin Hotel, when I created a party of 150 people. It was all based around the fact that I wanted to share what I have to share and be free of pretenses, and really just set up another night on Earth with other human beings.

Watch Eric Lewis strike chords to rock the jazz world >>