Interview by Phil Freeman
ELEW (the artist formerly known as Eric Lewis) is striking out at the artificially imposed boundaries of jazz. On his debut CD, Rockjazz Vol. 1, he delivers pummeling interpretations of songs by Nirvana, Radiohead, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Killers, Coldplay, the Rolling Stones and more. His technique is ferocious—he attended the Manhattan School of Music on a full scholarship, won the Thelonious Monk piano competition in 1996 and has recorded and performed with Wynton Marsalis, Donald Byrd, Ornette Coleman, Betty Carter and Cassandra Wilson, among others. Some criticize his theatrical, standing-at-the-piano-wearing-metal-wrist-plates style and his pounding technique as mere showbiz hackery, but if you listen closely, there’s not a whole lot of difference between his heavy block chords and repetitive melodies and those played by, say, Matthew Shipp. So he seemed like an ideal subject for a BurningAmbulance.com interview. Here it is.
When and how did this idea of blending rock and jazz first occur to you?
I first noticed these chamber music-sounding tracks on Brad Mehldau records. I would look on the CD and see the name “Radiohead,” which meant nothing to me except that, since it was of rock culture (which I never respected or bothered to follow), it was part of the basic politics of tightly budgeted jazz labels overtly but covertly trying to horn in on “college kids”’ tastes and dollars by using someone who “looked the part” and Pied Piper-ed their musical fancies. I, having won the Thelonious Monk Competition only to be ignored by the aforementioned jazz labels like a non-connected jerkoff outside of a chic nightclub trying to get a bouncer to bend the admission rules, was pissed off and growing increasingly disenchanted with touring the world with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Elvin Jones, ruminating in a musical cone of ’60s-era activism pathology. My disenchantment became crippling depression, panic attacks, shame about being a poor steward of precious time and money, and betrayal issue-mongering. So I got through it, Rumpelstiltskinned into Navy SEAL-inspired aggression and determination, and cut emotional ties with my jazz world. I woke up. I saw Kanye West and others living loudly and decided that for all of my training and education (full scholarship to Manhattan School of Music), it was the non-formally trained who were successfully converting their passion into livelihoods and then into major retail interests. It was the hypocrisy and meritocratic garbage that made me decide that music education was just another hustle. All big decisions were clique-oriented. When I didn’t get a deal and nobody said anything, I began to see that nobody liked me. Ouch. OK. Time to get to work the gangster way. I started listening to Jay-Z about the facts of business. I decided that piano and hip-hop would never work because hip-hop is about stories in spoken word. Then I finally checked out rock, on the suggestion of some prep school kids. They recommended Linkin Park. So I bought Meteora and something special happened. I heard the basic ProTools computer perfection and the parade-style beat, but the lyrics cut into me and were allowing all the putrid pus of the neurosis of my jazz disease to spill out. “Somewhere I Belong.” Then I shooed away all the dialectical differences between the volumes and instrumentation between rock and jazz and focused on the congruent emotional sincerities that existed between the musics. I was ridiculed by the New York Times for stating that the screams of Chester Bennington reminded me of late-period John Coltrane‘s wails on the saxophone. Anyway, once I exposed myself to rock, I noticed that the techniques being used in my jazz peers’ versions of piano rock left a lot of room for me to insert my version of rock. It’s workin’.
There’s a lot of instrumental technique on display on this album, and some of what you’re doing reminds me of recent solo piano work by Matthew Shipp—the same heavy chords, etc.—but he is firmly identified with jazz and you are said to be “abandoning” jazz. What specifically do you think sets your work as ELEW apart from the outer fringes of jazz, other than image/marketing (which is, of course, crucial)?
Ironically, I am more congruent with nostalgic jazz tradition than most of the modern jazz practitioners. My work is quite conceptually identical to the work of Erroll Garner, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum. Pop tunes; maintaining a singable melody throughout a contrapuntally expressed contemporary song form; familiar emotional delivery/execution/syntax; superior physiological technique; superior left hand rhythm pulse manifestation/integration/implementation; superior jazz piano technique with an emphasis on stride-style one-man-band vaudeville methods; basic understanding of sociological provocation for the purposes of entertainment; branding whether on the piano or off. Also I have more reason to be pissed off, which fuels my determination and creativity in the face of abject hopelessness and socio-economic roadblocks.
Were the songs recorded in single pure takes, like a jazz record? Does the idea of more elaborate production techniques, as in rock, appeal to you at all?
This particular record took a month of incessant sub-adequate attempts. Finally, in the last two hours of the last day that my producer was willing to pay for, I did all the songs in one or two takes. I plan or doing some electronically enhanced club tracks with vocals along with the one-take acoustic demonstrations for the purists on Rockjazz Volume 2.
By what criteria do you select the material you perform? What causes a song to perk your ears up and demand reinterpretation?
The lyrics need to capture my attention by cutting enough through the miasma of poetic possibilities regarding a particular emotion or situation. I like intricate but groovy bass lines to showcase my left hand, and also because tunes like that typically have the “pop friendliness” built in. Usually the rest of the material works harmoniously when these two basics are in place. Then I go to work on replicating emotions and sounds.
Do you plan to add musicians on future recordings, or will this continue to be a solo piano project?
Well, initially I had planned on the Rockjazz series as being a solo piano vehicle. But the next one needs to be a little more commercial in places for the purposes of mass attention and support. So yes, there will others musically involved on some parts of the recording. I will still make sure some extreme alternative rock tunes will be done solo, just to keep the dissonant fires burnin’ bright.
Your former boss, Wynton Marsalis, is somewhat famously conservative. Has he offered any thoughts on your current direction?
No, he is the type that refuses to encourage people like me. People like me make people like him hostile. As his type should be about people like me. His type knows that my type refuse to be discouraged or ridiculed out of our visions and destinations. So his type just clam up and do their thing with their friends, etc. Now of course, the only reason this subject has any relevance is because part of Wynton’s current brand is that of the Ever Stalwart Educator. Some of his conceptual/meritocratic hypocrisies are readily discoverable, and his economic visions for practitioners of jazz are rather pale and anemic compared to the loftiness of his assertions about the relevance/necessity of jazz as he plays it. Some stuff he is simply wrong about. But branding eclipses righteousness or being correct. So now that my branding and clout is bigger than anybody else that worked for him in the last few decades, when we see each other, the subject ain’t the music business, it’s just me kicking his butt in chess or us reminiscing verbally and musically about the intrinsic foibles of our race and romantic relationships. We jam sometimes and get some mutual laughs and musical curiosities goin’.
You’re currently working on Rockjazz Vol. 2—what songs does it include, and how is it different from Vol. 1?
This recording will have some original club beat vocal pieces, as well as some favorites from the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Linkin Park, Thrice, Mute Math, the Cranberries, etc. My technique is way better, so the execution will be smoother and the danceability/singability factor way stronger. The record will be my first hit. It’s conceptually going to be about the color grey. It will be a further exploration into the musical depiction of the overlapping blacks and whites of our external/internal existence: political, neurological, and galactic.