Eric Lewis possesses a gifted mind that never lets go. In fact, it can appear almost compulsive, the way Lewis attacks material, as if his mind refuses to release an idea until it has been absolutely dissected, examined, reassembled, and then reordered all over again. And if he falls upon a particularly pleasing, or perhaps confounding, idea, be careful because you are in for an intense, intricate, joyful ride that will transport you places you didn’t know were possible. Moreover, Eric Lewis speaks just as he plays. Elliptically, both abstractly and concretely, his sentences containing disarmingly open emotion followed by concrete details, slang, a joke. And he repeats himself. Or it appears so if you aren’t listening carefully, because he never actually states the same thing twice the same way. A minor (or major) substitution always exists, and what may seem a tangent eventually reveals itself to be fully appropriate. Sometimes, it’s just a slightly different phrasing, the rhythms rich with varied inflection and emphasis, the slightest shifts altering the meaning of his words.
After graduating from high school, Lewis departed for New York in pursuit of jazz. According to saxophonist/composer Antonio Parker, who knew him at that time, Lewis left relatively unprepared for the ever intense New York scene. At least it appeared so. Speaking together between sets, Parker (who would later take the stage with Lewis) seemed slightly confounded, and immensely pleased by Lewis’s development. Shaking his head, he exclaimed, “I knew that boy when he couldn’t even play!” before going on to extol Lewis’s work, and to remind me that Lewis had taken first place in the 1999 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.
Since that time, Lewis has done nothing but grow in stature. He has recorded with several significant artists, including Cassandra Wilson and Roy Hargrove. More recently, Lewis has been touring with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and will appear on Wynton Marsalis’s next Blue Note release. So Lewis is by no means an unknown. Percussionist Lenny Robinson, who has often played with Lewis in N.Y. over the past 7 or 8 years, bares able witness to his development, observing,
Eric is a very smart guy, very intelligent, and his mind works very fast and inventively, both on or off the piano...It’s always a pleasure to play with him because his dynamic range on the piano is wider than most people’s. I mean, the only person who even comes close, in terms of being able to get that expansiveness of sound out of it, is somebody like Randy Weston.
Robinson continued on to describe Lewis’s playing
"...It’s all about textures and layers, and whenever he plays, there’s always the feeling of the solo going somewhere. It never stops or takes a break."
Despite such accolades and experiences, however, Lewis has yet to release a recording under his own name, although he composes tunes often and well. Rumors of imminent recording dates continuously come and go, and though clearly more than ready, there is presently only one way to hear Lewis play his own tunes his own, unadulterated way: to catch him live.
On this particular date, July 5th, Lewis arrived late at HR-57, Washington, D.C.’s Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues. This non-profit organization, with its jam session, anything-goes atmosphere, harks back to the semi-mythical Minton’s in its bare bones decor and stubborn broadmindedness, all of which makes it just about the perfect venue for Lewis to display his diverse talents.
Thoroughly exhausted from two previous engagements, Lewis barely had time to adjust HR-57’s Steinway (a ritual he performs no matter how recent the last tuning) before taking the stage with cohort Paul Beaudry and local master percussionist Lenny Robinson. Once behind the piano, all signs of fatigue evaporated and Lewis proceeded to gift the Independence Day weekend crowd with not only one, but three arrestingly energetic sets.
The trio opened with Lewis’s boldly personal reinvention of John Coltrane’s “Mr. Day,” the original’s mid-tempo indigos and melancholic azure laments thickened with midnight black into indignation’s cobalt force. The rhythmic drive and textural layers of Lewis, Beaudry, and Robinson’s equally extended solos combined strata upon strata of rhythmic variance, volatile percussive displays, desperately resonant and lyrically subtle statements. Throughout, Lewis demonstrated a seemingly limitless capacity for pounding harmonic and melodic improvisations.