Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Less Than Less Is More

The more I listen to John Lewis, the pianist, the more radical he seems. A brilliant composer and bandleader, Lewis was also a uniquely receptive accompanist, surrounding his fellow Modern Jazz Quartet member Milt Jackson, or, for that matter, anyone onboard, with impeccable chordal jabs or, his specialty, melodic phrases that draped the improviser in counterpoint clover. With the spotlight trained on him, Lewis displayed the same wit, ingenuity and unsparing frugality. A quiet iconoclast, Lewis was a staunch minimalist long before the term came into common use. If something could be said with four notes, why not play two? Or even one?
His economy of means is downright audacious, particularly in an era when pianists were still dealing with the implications of Art Tatum and Bud Powell, musical tigers who regularly devoured as much of the keyboard as was humanly possible. (Comparing Lewis with the era's most popular jazz pianist, the proudly prolix Oscar Peterson, is a hoot; they may as well be playing different instruments.)

Here, Lewis interprets his most famous composition, one he probably played hundreds of times by 1965, with characteristic freshness. His internal editor is working overtime, cutting, cutting, cutting -- yet everything that needs to be said is all there. Hemingway spoke of the iceberg effect that he aimed for in his spare writing, implying rather than revealing the mass that was hidden under the sea. This is that effect translated into jazz practice.

1 comment:

  1. so correct. i've been playing his "at the horse show" from that late-career evolution disc. bouncy yet sparse. when it's that clean, all the ideas are super evident.