Eric Lewis Interpreting Classics of an Alternative Kind


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The jazz pianist Eric Lewis recently said that when he first listened to the rap-rock band Linkin Park, the sound of its singer, Chester Bennington, put him in mind of John Coltrane.

He also said that Linkin Park made him think of Miles Davis and Elvin Jones and Puccini. Seriously: it’s in an interview on the blog of the TED conference (blog.ted.com), an annual gathering of maverick ideologues, where he and his band recently performed.

The jazz pianist Eric Lewis and his band, ELEW, performed a program of rock songs at Le Poisson Rouge on Thursday night. I don’t relate. (Chester Bennington’s voice strikes me as thin and charmless.) In fact I think it’s loony, but it’s admirably loony, and I’m willing to hear him out.

Eric Lewis is a seriously gifted jazz pianist who has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson and Elvin Jones. He is a musician with subtle and strange improvisational ideas and sometimes great, clobbering ones: listen to his solo on “Free to Be,” from Mr. Marsalis’s record “The Magic Hour.”

His comments on the TED blog outlined the concept behind his new project, ELEW, which has been taking shape over the last four years, is heading to Europe for festival season this summer and was performed at Le Poisson Rouge on Thursday. It’s pretty straightforward: a jazz musician plays pop tunes.

It’s a tradition. It doesn’t always work. It might have worked best for Coltrane, who had a hit with his version of “My Favorite Things.” It worked for Archie Shepp (“The Girl From Ipanema”) and Ms. Wilson (“Last Train to Clarksville,” among other songs). And it seems to be working for the Brad Mehldau Trio and the Bad Plus and some other groups that like to take apart songs by, say, Radiohead or Nirvana. But no jazz band is making that its backbone and its sole reason. No band except ELEW.

A few minutes into ELEW’s show, Mr. Lewis explained some more. The aim is “pop art,” he said: taking “the beautiful classics of alternative rock” and “investigating them like Jacques Cousteau.” Bring it on.

What follows isn’t an anti-rock position. Nor is it unsympathetic to jazz musicians who want to try something their mentors would disapprove of, or who want to be better paid. The main problem with ELEW’s set was that Mr. Lewis had chosen some of the worst music in the world, and wasn’t doing enough to it.

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