Eric Lewis: Hopscotch [CD and DVD]

Robert R. Calder

A non-anonymous set by a pianist the expert employment agency of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra booked, trio then suddenly unaccompanied swinging in a two-handed style with Jaki Byard for precedent. You get to see him play all but one track on an accompanying DVD.

Eric Lewis

Hopscotch [CD and DVD]

Label: Fortress
US Release Date: 2005-08-02
UK Release Date: 2005-08-01

Eric Lewis is another of those not so many nice pianists with a sound really of his own, clean-edged and individual in trio. He sounds slightly less distinctive when racing ahead unaccompanied, but presumably there are even fewer people with whom he could be confused for solo pace and swing.

It seems more important in this review to deal with the music, rather than with the DVD of the television show which comes with the CD and lets you see Lewis and trio performing all but one of the tracks on the audio disc.

The packaging tells us that there is an interview with "jazz authority, Pulitzer Prize, multi Grammy award winning , Artistic Director of Jazz @ Lincoln Center, Mr. Wynton Marsalis." This mouthful tells us that American music marketing still can balloon twaddle of an old sort. Wynton Marsalis knows a lot, but he is not exactly an authority on jazz, as some people have been clear Ken Burns ought to have known.

The interview "with the artist, Eric Lewis" (No Mr.?) is called "informative". The interviews with the bassist and the drummer are referred to in similar blimpish language.

The CD contains all the same musical notes, and what is more (hark at the further cliché) what's called a "bonus" track. A bonus for listening to the music rather than watching the TV show?

This is called "an unprecedented performance like no other", which presumably implies being unprecedented in an unprecedented way. Beside that nonsense there are all the standard credits on a movie DVD, Leslie Allen is presumably "director of post production and visual effects". Composer credits there ain't.

The booming left hand figure on the atmospheric opener "Alasum" to the spinet sound achieved in "Calamari" there's a depth of colour in Lewis's playing. "Puerto Rico" is quiet, with the same purposeful tinniness and a sustained tension during which a grand, swelling left hand passage performs an amazing excursion. Later the pinched sound Lewis achieves in the right hand piano part makes common cause with the rhythm section to create a percussion cum string band style of conclusion. In a nice piece of programming, "Pinocchio" then opens up the ensemble sound, the bass full and the fleet right hand benefitting, to produce a querulous sort of virtuoso performance.

The title track suggests Jaki Byard a little, constructed on a build-up of quirky phrases, and flowing passages with an ethereal sound, into orchestral piano, with more percussive flourishes at the top end of the piano and a lot of swell in the left hand and the bass resonance full and deep. Almost a piano duet sound,

"Monk" (why that name?) isn't Monkish, and also misses the ripping drum-rolls Art Blakey provided Monk with, amazing turns, direction changes and transformations. Ralph Penland might have been given a little more to do on what sounds like a transcription for piano trio of a Jazz Messengers arrangement of the theme generally known as "Milestones".

This is, like most of the tracks, relatively short, and the round-up of what Lewis can do pretty well finishes with his fast-paced unaccompanied solo "Cherokee". That's rather a wake-up call, because as in other sets of manly originals the entry of somebody else's melodic inspiration refreshes as against a tendency to go round in circles once the performer's compositional ideas have pretty well been exhausted and he's starting fundamentally to repeat himself. The solo again follows Byard, judging simply from a hearing of the music. Two racing hands generate cross-rhythms with approximations through one passage to stride. The straightforward approach pays in confrontation with the challenging set of chords this old standard has always been.

"Thanksgiving" is another high-powered and exciting unaccompanied performance manifesting again Lewis's distinctive tonality -- something like a piano with tin tacks in the hammers. -- a display of energy and stamina but not necessarily improvising invention. For a long time, bop pianists never worked out how to maintain without help of bass and drums the creative right hand work which developed relying on the other two rhythm men to replace the left hand of earlier jazz piano styles. The new sort of right hand work just asked too much of the five left fingers.

The ability to maintain impetus and swing unaccompanied could be demonstrated by an occasional solo number on a set, with the unusually consequent want of development not being remarked on, since the other impressive features of the solo interlude added variety to the overall succession of performances. This is what there is here, and since the track following is solo piano on the same lines there's a slight feeling of listening to musical blarney. It's something of a tour de force, playing through the successions of harmonies and rhythms which are the matrix from which a jazz solo performance could be selected.

"Blessed Assurance" is in sumptuous ballad vein, emphasising Lewis's value as an accompanist. It's short and largely decorative. Very lucky the band which can call on Eric Lewis's extensive resources, less lucky the listener experiencing the law of diminishing returns which has begun to apply on this set -- if it's taken demandingly seriously.

The bassist is back for "Ruth in Blue", where the very full piano sound with metallic top seems overripe. Though it's hardly possible not to be impressed by the pianist's palette and capacity to perform on the grand scale, somewhere or other the realisation comes in that in the course of this set "Live from the Club at Blue Palm" musical inspiration proper somehow flagged. The singular sonority and expression of energy proceeded unabating but with less and less fresh substance to the music. "Ruth in Blue" isn't a long track, either. The so-called bonus is the longest trio track, the pianist a bit more subdued, and the bass speaking in a solo role, Lewis supplying atmospheric accompaniment until with a shift of the balance he moves into central place in a likeable drift through. I'm being hard on this set, whose conception was itself quite hard on Lewis.

This set's good but definitely not great. Those who might have pined for trio sets by Walter Davis Jr. or Harold Mabern, say, when BlueNote was recording them in sets with two horns, might wonder whether their programming with band wasn't after all a rather better idea than over-exposure. Perhaps they needed rather more experience before their major solo achievements of later years. Lewis can do things they seem not to have tried to do, but he's not ahead of them. Byard did record a fair bit solo and in trio, and of you listened through the CD reissues you might be shocked at earlier reviewers' suggestions that that little titan somehow lacked individuality. Lewis's own best is yet to come, with or without pictures and in or out of trademarked ' "'Audio Atmosphere' visual light settings".

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