Eric Lewis: Hopscotch

John Kelman By

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...one wishes that Lewis would turn up the heat at times, push the rhythm section to be more interactive, take the tunes a little further.
Eric Lewis
Fortress Records FUSA 0502-2

While he's been an incredibly busy pianist since emerging onto the scene in the mid-1990s, pianist Eric Lewis has been surprisingly underexposed as a leader. Still, while working with artists including trombonist Robin Eubanks and Cassandra Wilson has given him some cachet, it's his ongoing musical relationship with Wynton Marsalis that has put his name out to the widest audience. In fact, Hopscotch represents Lewis' first outing as a leader, and it's a multi-media affair meant to bring attention to him from a variety of aspects, being a DVD, a CD, and more.

Intended as a DVD album rather than a simple CD release—although there is a bonus CD with audio tracks from the session—the main program of Hopscotch is an in-the-studio recording of Lewis—winner of the 1999 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition'"solo, and with his trio featuring bassist Paul Beaudry and drummer Ralph Penland, working through a series of ten Lewis compositions, and covers including the classic standard "Cherokee and Wayne Shorter's "Pinocchio.

The trio tunes are light contemporary fare—nobody breaks a sweat. Even "Pinocchio — which is about as energetic as the trio gets—retains a smooth veneer, making it surprisingly accessible and easy on the ears. Lewis' writing for the trio bears some reference to drummer Tony Williams' work of the late-1980s with Mulgrew Miller; but their treatment lacks the power that was inherent in Williams' crack quintet. Even when Lewis incorporates a Latin influence, as he does on "Puerto Rico, it all feels featherweight. Beaudry and Penland are clearly fine players, but little is asked of them, barring maintaining a comfortable groove.

That's not to say Lewis isn't a fine player. The final third of the program finds Lewis on his own, and while his work with the trio is deceptively straightforward, here he demonstrates more obvious chops, despite the continued levity of the material. "Cherokee is taken at a clip, with a rolling left hand pattern that makes it feel like a train ride. "Thanksgiving is a longer piece that references Lewis' clear roots in gospel. There's no lack of soul, but again, it's all aimed at being light and pleasantly entertaining.

The inherent accessibility of the set means that it will appeal to a large mainstream audience, but one wishes that Lewis would turn up the heat at times, push the rhythm section to be more interactive, take the tunes a little further. Considering the demands that working with a player like Marsalis have to make on Lewis, Hopscotch, while an enjoyable set, doesn't really say a lot about who Eric Lewis really is.

The package, on the other hand, has a lot to offer. You can watch Lewis and the trio perform the album either with or without a background "Audio Atmosphere —soft undulating colours that synch well with the easy-going ambiance of the music. There are a number of bonus features, including the trio performing live in front of an audience for a BET television show, over an hour of interviews with Lewis, Beaudry and Penland, in addition to Marsalis, who gives his own insight into what makes Lewis tick. Finally, there's a CD included with the tracks from the album, plus a bonus track from the session.

Hopscotch presents an alternate side to Lewis' work with Marsalis. Despite being an enjoyable experience, future releases will hopefully find Lewis taking a few more risks and digging a little deeper into the material; he clearly has the all the raw material. One just gets the feeling that he's not really using them.

Personnel: Eric Lewis: piano; Paul Beaudry: bass; Ralph Penland: drums

Track Listing: Alasum; Love Letters; Calamari; Puerto Rico; Pinocchio; Hopscotch; The Philly Groove; Monk; Cherokee; Thanksgiving; The Church Picnic; Blesses Assurance; Ruth in Blue; I'll Always Miss You

DVD Feature: Capability to watch studio recording with/without "Audio Atmosphere background setting

Bonus Features: "Eric Lewis Live from the Club at Blue Palm BET Jazz Television show;
Interviews with Eric Lewis, Paul Beaudry, Ralph Penland; video of Wynton Marsalis discussing Eric and his music;
Audio CD, including a bonus track.

Note: Hopscotch can be purchased from www.theclubatbluepalm.com by pressing "The Artists" button at the top of the page, selecting the Eric Lewis "Read More" button and pressing "Order Now."

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