Rock-jazz pianist Eric Lewis blends a complex vision with a classic art form
Playing music is a form of self-expression. But what happens when the record industry prevents certain musicians from expressing themselves? That was the quandary facing Eric Lewis, a decorated young jazz pianist—he won the 1999 Thelonious Monk Competition and went on to play with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Elvin Jones—who found himself, in his early 30s, stalling as a solo artist. “My whole existence was about jazz,” Lewis says. “From a very young age, I was a stalwart purist. That’s why the panic attacks were so heavy when I couldn’t get a record deal. It wasn’t about going platinum. It was about continuing the legacy of the art form.”
"My idea of bling is Thor. I’m into mythology."
Lewis’s sense of powerlessness was exacerbated by the fact that traditional jazz songs didn’t speak to him. “Take a classic like Lush Life—‘I used to visit all the very gay places, those come what may places/Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life to get the feel of life,’” he says, quoting the Billy Strayhorn lyrics. “That didn’t reflect my reality. It wasn’t until I started to listen more openly to rock and roll that I started to hear songs that did—songs from bands like Nirvana, or Linkin Park. The simplicity and the transparency of those lyrics matched the stark poignant pain that I was feeling.”
Turned away by traditional jazz, turned on by rock and roll, Lewis transformed himself into a performer who played solo piano covers of rock songs. There was some precedent in the work of pianists like Brad Mehldau and groups like the Bad Plus, but Lewis committed fully. He now records as ELEW, a contraction of his name that also serves as a kind of rebranding, and he plays frenetically, often standing up, usually wearing specially designed forearm armor called vambraces. The result is a hybrid of jazz and rock (or, as the titles of the first two ELEW albums would have it, Rockjazz Vol. 1 and Rockjazz Vol. 2) that interrogates the dividing lines between black music and white music, high and low culture and introspection and extroversion. Songs range from classic-rock chestnuts like the Doors’ People Are Strange to the Rolling Stones (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction to more recent songs like the Killers’ Mr. Brightside and the Editors’ Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors.
Lewis acknowledges that his new approach may alienate jazz gatekeepers, though he warns that it is precisely that attitude that limits the genre’s reach. “It’s tricky,” he says, “because jazz and the civil rights movement are intertwined. There was a time when black musicians were not allowed to perform at Carnegie Hall. There was a sense that black musicians were not intelligent enough to play and so they developed their own techniques. As a result, there is, to this day, an element of jazz musicians still trying to demonstrate that they can measure up to a European classical standard, and the audience has dwindled in part because they’re not concerned with their audience.” Lewis pauses before rushing back in. “I wouldn’t say this is all bad,” he says, “but it’s an indisputable phenomenon. This whole classical sword hanging over the neck of jazz has been very powerful in its psychology: what gets played, what can’t be played, how much we’re willing to cross over to the mainstream.”
Irrepressibly analytical, relentlessly self-conscious, Lewis chronicles his own journey with a mix of academic rigor and the talking cure. “As I became more of a rock performer, or a rock-jazz performer, I started looking into performance pedagogy,” he says. “I come from Camden, New Jersey, where there are both traditionally African-American norms of expression and others that are universal. If I go to a rave, I’m going to see people getting physical and spontaneous, the same way I would at a rock show or a hip-hop show. And yet, that’s something that’s absent from classical music. Applause has been curbed and regulated over the centuries. So when I perform now, I really think about how people are able to show their approval spontaneously.”
Similarly, wearing his vambraces has become an important part of his act. “For me,” he says, “it’s a symbol of strength and beauty merging together. It’s also an alternate type of bling. Maybe for some rap or rock stars it’s a grille or a car. My idea of bling is Thor. I’m into mythology. I hung out with heavy-metal kids in high school, people on the fringe but who celebrated that marginality. It’s also very battle-oriented because I wanted to get a rock-and-roll aggression using only a piano.”
"This whole classical sword hanging over the neck of jazz has been very powerful in its psychology."
As ELEW, Lewis has traveled far from frustrated obscurity. He has become a favorite of celebrities (he performed at Leonardo DiCaprio’s birthday party) and political luminaries (in 2009 he appeared at the White House, where he played Mr. Brightside), along with crowds in both concert halls and on the Internet. Others, he says, have been as animated by the electrical charge of rockjazz as he has. And the professional reinvention has been accompanied by a personal rejuvenation—he was overweight during his depression phase and has managed to lose much of that weight. “I recently had a Eureka moment with the Kings of Leon song Sex On Fire,” he says. “I played at an event called Burning Lamb in the Catskills. I started one morning at 3:45 a.m., rocking in the middle of a forest, and played until eight in the morning. People were jumping up and down, wearing body paint: I had never experienced such abandon. That experience has been with me for the last few weeks, and suddenly the lyrics of Sex on Fire hit me. This is a very powerful time, in creative ways but in sensual ways also. I’m getting more attractive. My body’s transforming. That song will definitely be on the third rockjazz record.”
But it’s a pair of songs on the second volume that he says most accurately distill his philosophy. “On that second record, I started with the Bravery’s Believe, which has a line ‘Just give me something to believe.’ That’s all I was ever looking for, something that would reward my belief in it. I followed that with the Foo Fighters M.I.A. It’s a love song, and one of the lyrics that really moves me is ‘Getting lost in you again is better than being numb.’ That’s my love letter to the rock world. If jazz guys consider me crazy, so be it.”
ELEW’s wardrobe custom designed by Angelo Galasso.