By the time saxophonist/flutist Mark Lewis got his band into the studio to record Naked Animals, he’d already established himself as a vitally creative artist via a series of acclaimed albums on his label Audio Daddio, which featured recordings by a variety of U.S. and European artists. What set the 1990 session apart is that it marked the first time he’d documented his Dutch quartet, an ensemble with an avid following across Holland, and particularly Rotterdam where he’d been largely based for more than a decade.
The Tacoma-born Lewis reintroduced himself to U.S. audiences with 2017’s The New York Session, a critically hailed album featuring piano great George Cables, veteran bassist Essiet Essiet, and the supremely swinging drummer Victor Lewis. Focusing on his rhythmically charged original compositions, Naked Animals is a very different kind of recording. With Lewis on alto sax and flute, pianist Willem Kühne, drummer Frans van Grinsven, and James Long on bass, the 1990 project came near the end of the working band’s long association. Put on the back burner when Lewis signed to a U.S. label, the album offers a startlingly beautiful glimpse into a working band with an expansive post-bop vision.
“I record really fast and don’t do a lot of takes,” Lewis says. “Jazz should be perfect in its intentions, but not in its execution. We had at least 100 songs in our book and after a while we got so tight we’d do big concerts and I’d pull out something that they’d never seen before. Just to keep things fresh.”
The album opens with one of those surprises, “Moonflower,” a graceful, harmonically elegant piece that the rhythm section delivers with calm, buoyant effervescence. Grooving gently in 5/4, “Mercurian Rendezvous” showcases the lithe, darting quality of Lewis’s phrasing and his gleaming alto sax tone. Not to be confused with the 1930s standard immortalized by Billie Holiday, this “Ghost of a Chance” is a slinky Lewis original that sets Lewis and Kühne over the double-time tandem of Long’s bass and Van Grinsven’s tasty drum work. The quartet sounds effortless navigating the rhythmic contrasts, while Kühne’s solo demonstrates why he’s such a highly regarded figure on the Dutch jazz scene. Set to a churning West African 12/8 rhythm, a Van Grinsven specialty, the title track features a beseeching Lewis solo that increases in intensity without accelerating. After a “Naked Animals” romp, Lewis takes a walk on the tender side on “A Dance with Monique,” a sensuous melody that features his luminous flute. The quartet mosey into a very different landscape on “City Slicker,” a confidently loping tune with some particularly bouncy Long bass work. Lewis closes the album with “The Seven Angels,” an episodic, almost antic tune that offers a preview of coming attractions, as it’s gleaned from a score Lewis composed for an evening-length ballet. For Lewis, the album is a tribute to a formidable band filled “with great musicians who loved the music. It’s not always easy to find musicians who really dedicate themselves to your music.” With more than 20 albums to his credit, Mark Lewis seems to have a knack for finding exceptional musicians interested in exploring his tunes. Born in Tacoma (in 1958) and raised on a farm outside nearby Gig Harbor, he absorbed music from both sides of his family. His paternal grandmother was a concert pianist and his maternal grandfather played saxophone (a C melody horn that Lewis started playing at age nine). Despite profound visual impairment, he had free run of the family hi-fi system and soaked up Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Art Tatum while investigating his parents’ record collection. A standout player in middle school, he formed his first band at 14 to perform at local dances and sports events. By high school, Lewis’s waking hours were filled with music as he played lead alto in the stage band, sang in concert and jazz choirs, played clarinet in the concert band, and performed music for school plays. Leading several bands around the region, he supported himself while studying composition, flute, electronic music, and piano at Western Washington University and the Cornish Institute of Allied Arts.