There may be a phenomenon in jazz (and perhaps in art, generally) that critics discount artists who reach large audiences. The most obvious example is pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, whose popularity as an instrumentalist landed him on the cover of Time and whose knack for catchy tunes and exciting performances made him a college campus sensation in the 1950s and 1960s. Yeah, during the ascendancy of rock music, there was a Buddy Holly-looking jazz musician driving the academics wild.
There’s another pianist who is easily skipped over in the lists of important figures from that era. Like Brubeck, he was a musician steeped in jazz but also trained in classical music. He earned a masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music long before “jazz school” was common, and he would go on to teach at the City College of New York and Harvard University in the late 1970s. Lewis was also a primary arranger for Miles Davis’ famous “Birth of the Cool” sessions in the late 1940s, the recordings of which are considered seminal examples of sophisticated, classical elements being applied to jazz.
Lewis, in short, was often tagged as a cool, less swinging jazz musician. And, likely for that reason, he can be written out of the narrative of jazz from bebop to today, a narrative that generally prizes advances in “freedom” and expressionistic playing rather than restraint and elegance. That is ironic, given that Lewis’s most famous ensemble — the Modern Jazz Quartet (“MJQ”), also featuring Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke or Connie Kay on drums — started as the rhythm section for Dizzy Gillespie’s ragingly swinging big band. In fact, both Lewis and the MJQ were capable of fire and gentle cool.
There have been few tributes to Lewis since he died in 2001. I would not have expected one to come from pianist Jon Batiste, who most folks will know from his high-profile job leading the band for Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show. On the show, Batiste leads “Stay Human”, a show band that plays different styles (though including several long-time Batiste friends from Julliard — a fine band), and he acts as an occasional foil for Colbert in the tradition of Paul Shaffer and Doc Severinsen, using his Louisiana accent and natural exuberance to advantage. And, yes, before all that, Batiste was a promising young musician from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts along with Trombone Shorty and collaborating with the likes of Christian Scott and Jason Marsalis.
Amidst that biography, you can see the makings of The Music of John Lewis, a concert recording from 2013, with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It is a shimmering and beautiful recording, and it offers jazz fans the welcome opportunity to reconsider Lewis. The Lewis presented here is precisely the Lewis that some jazz folks rejected: complex, entwined with the Western classical tradition, subtle, but grand, too. What I would not have guessed is how very 2017 this music sounds.
There are nine pieces here, precise and focused. Batiste plays a solo piano version of Lewis’ most enduring tune, “Django” (for the jazz guitarist), and your reaction to it might be a test of how you feel about the whole recording. Batiste plays the tune like it was a series of etudes set in different styles: romantic, classical, New Orleans, swing, baroque. You don’t get much sense of Batiste as a piano stylist from this exhibition, which manages to be both restrained and show-off-y at once. It sits at the opposite pole from the opening piece, “2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West”, which is a slow blues set for a minimal quintet that mainly lets Victor Goines and Doug Wamble (on clarinet and guitar, respectively) play some soulful stuff over an ambling, easy groove. Once Batiste takes over, we hear the sleek swing of Carlos Henriquez (bass) and Ali Jackson (drums), giving us a vintage MJQ experience — a gliding propulsion that can’t be beat.
The full orchestra is used most fully on four John Lewis compositions drawn from the MJQ album The Comedy. These are truly interesting pieces of music that fall on the “classically influenced” side of the Lewis canon but are also rich in blues content. “La Cantatrice” (the opera singer) starts with a Bach-like two-part invention, then moves into a set of quiet punching figures that let piano and bass play a more classical line beneath the swing figure. The piano trio gets a bop section for improvising. The band ends it with a more dramatic blast of the main figure, but it’s mostly an exercise in shades of different styles. “Piazza Novona” lurches more between styles, with sections of up-tempo big band swing that feature Marsalis’s trumpet in glorious singing style alternating with moodier romantic sections.
“Pulcinella” and “Spanish Steps” continue in this vein. The former is a thrill-a-minute arrangement that uses counterpoint just as much as it allows Batiste to wail on some barrelhouse piano. The latter flips between bright, brassy swing and Latin rhythms, as you might imagine. What emerges from hearing these arrangements today is less some kind of “third stream” elitism or uncertainty about jazz but rather a precursor to today’s most interesting improvised music. In the new century, a great deal of the most thrilling jazz (from, say, Steve Coleman or Mary Halvorson or Ryan Keberle or Vijay Iyer) is involved in shifts between styles and genres, ways of incorporating music from other cultures, or unique approaches to form. Lewis was already there.
In fact, when The Music of John Lewis gives us the Lewis music that we all liked years ago (a roaring “Two Bass Hit” and a small group killer on “Delaunay’s Dilemma”), that stuff seems comforting like macaroni and cheese. It’s GREAT to hear Marsalis and Ted Nash (alto saxophone) wail on the “Rhythm” changes of the second, and both Batiste and Marsalis absolutely tear up the first. (Side note: Don’t ever forget what a stupendous player Marsalis is. Every solo he takes here is puckish and thrilling.) But these pleasures do not seem, as much, to be pointing a way forward in the music.
The Music of John Lewis is a useful reminder that John Lewis was a truly great jazz musician because he provided a majestic take on the music of this generation and was an under-appreciated seeker. Lewis seemed to know that expanding the harmonic and rhythmic freedom of the music would have an end point and that grappling for forms and styles would provide the post-modern future of jazz.
In this concert, knowingly or otherwise, Jon Batiste and Wynton Marsalis get to that truth.