The New York Session
From liner notes by Ted Gioia: In short, this is a great artist and a remarkable ensemble, so set aside some time to relax and settle into this recording - original compositions by Mark Lewis.
Liner notes by Ted Gioia:
I have been writing about jazz for more than thirty years, and now have ten books on music to my credit. But I rarely write liner notes for new jazz releases. In fact, I’ve probably only done 3 or 4 in the last decade.
But I asked Mark Lewis to let me write something for his new album. I volunteered and refused any payment for my services. You see, even a seasoned music critic like me can also be a fan.
If you lend your ears to this music, I suspect you’ll be a fan too. There’s so much to savor and admire here. Lewis’s musicality, his inventiveness, his humor, his ability to immerse himself in the soundscape of the performance with total emotional commitment—these all stand out here in track after track.
It would be easy to focus on Lewis’s exceptional technical skill—and he has probably put in more practice hours than any jazz player I know. There are only three time periods in a typical Mark Lewis day: he’s either practicing, just about to practice, or just finished practicing. (He may also be the most prolific composer I’ve met—with around 1,700 works to his credit!) By all means, enjoy his uncanny ease of execution, and dig how he hits those high notes with the grace of an outfielder stretching to grab some insane almost-home-run ball before it flies over the fence. But the aspect that most delights me here is how Lewis puts the stamp of his own personality, quirky and charming, on every song.
Check out Lewis’s solo on “Child’s Play”—an off-to-the-races performance on a composition that is anything but child’s play—and marvel at how he still brings out the playfulness and sense of childlike discovery even at a blistering tempo. That’s a signature of his style. It’s never just patterns and flying fingers with Mark Lewis. He always takes us on a musical journey, marked at every step by the curiosity and zeal of the eternal explorer who is our guide.
Then compare this with “Koan,” Hearing Lewis’s work here is like watching the slow unfolding of a lotus blossom, almost a lesson in musical mindfulness. He evokes the sound of the traditional shakuhachi flute, but blends it effortlessly with the vocabulary of jazz (and even some Rahsaan-ish overblowing) in a piece that serves as tribute to, in Lewis’s words, “the dedicated workers who went into the Fukushima atomic power plant after the tsunami flooded it. They saved so many people without regard to their own safety.”
Or listen to the soulful blues of “DL Blues,” dedicated to fellow musician Dick Lupino—Mark first got the idea for this song while trying out a microphone at the session that had been previously used by John Coltrane. Or check out the slow funk waltz of “Connie” (for club owner Connie Jacob), the carnival spirit “Boberto’s Magical World” (dedicated to drummer Bob Merrihew), and the 12/8 “Roll ‘Em Joe” for guitarist Joe Huron. As these tributes indicate, Mark’s music is an autobiography in sound of the people and places he’s known. But even if you weren’t aware of the particular circumstances behind each song, you would still get a sense of the experiential element and rich tapestry of life woven into these songs. You can hear it at every step in the music.
Mark Lewis was born in Tacoma, and started learning saxophone at age nine—playing his grandfather’s C-melody horn. He later switched his focus to alto sax and flute, and started to gain a reputation in the Seattle area before embarking on his travels. Although he deals with a serious visual impairment—he was born with congenital cataracts, but after a series of surgeries has some limited sight, although he is legally blind—that might make others reluctant to travel unaccompanied, Lewis has made bold explorations of the world. He has pursued residencies in a wide range of cities and countries. He has lived, for shorter or longer periods, in Holland, San Francisco, British Columbia and other locales. He now calls Bremerton, Washington his home, but he is often on the road.
Lewis is ably assisted here by a world-class band. Even before I heard the music, I was excited about the prospect of Lewis collaborating with pianist George Cables. Cables has been one of the most in-demand jazz pianists of the last four decades. In addition to his many leader dates, he has worked alongside Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, Art Pepper, Joe Henderson, Max Roach, Woody Shaw, Art Blakey, and many other leading luminaries of jazz. On track after track, Cables shows just what an alchemist of the keyboard he is, transforming the black and white notes into rich kaleidoscopes of sound.
I’ve admired Victor Lewis’s drum work since I first heard him with Stan Getz’s band in the early 1980s. I’ve seen him in different musical settings, and Lewis always finds the right pulse, texture and drive for every song. New York bassist Essiet Essiet rounds out the group, and he too brings an impressive pedigree to the session—he was Art Blakey’s last bassist, and has worked with Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Benny Golson, and the Blue Note All-Stars.
In short, this is a great artist and a remarkable ensemble. So set aside some time to relax and settle into this recording.
I only wish you could meet the man behind the music. I have learned much from watching Mark Lewis in action. And not just from his activities on the bandstand. I’ve heard him in analytical discussion with a scientist on the musical scale implied by the orbit of the nine planets around the sun of our solar system. I’ve seen him teach a famous jazz drummer the nuances of an African 15/8 rhythm. I’ve heard him offer a learned disquisition on the relationship between Gustav Mahler and Lennie Tristano. Whenever I encounter Mark Lewis, I am rewarded with something new to consider or some fresh sound to relish.
Perhaps if you get a chance to hear Lewis live in concert you will gain a more complete sense of what a special person he is. And if you have the opportunity to talk to him after the gig, seize it. But even on these tracks, you will get some measure of who he is and what he does. He’s a magical man. I’ve experienced the enchantment; here’s a chance for you to do so too.
Ted Gioia is the author of The Jazz Standards and The History of Jazz, both published by Oxford University Press. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from Basic Books.