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John Lewis: Evolution II

Following Evolution, his masterly solo piano CD of last year, Lewis moves into quartet settings to dispense more of his distilled wisdom. He is supported by two superb rhythm sections and is the only soloist. As always, much of the charm and fascination in Lewis’ playing is that rather than pour everything he knows-or even a tenth of what he knows-into an improvisation, he finds power in restraint. The result, as he has demonstrated for more than half a century, is the profundity of simplicity.

A Lewis invention is likely to be based on riffs and on ideas that are not always immediately obvious as coming from the blues, although a high percentage of them do. No pianist other than Count Basie has used the approach with as much elegance. From “The Festivals,” which opens the album, to the closing “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Lewis builds on phrases that come from the blues tradition. Some are as immediately obvious as direct quotes from Charlie Parker in “One of Parker’s Moods.” Others, like a snatch of Lester Young’s solo from “Pound Cake” in the blues called “Sammy,” come at the listener more obliquely. Lewis explores some of his best-known pieces-“Django,” “Afternoon in Paris” and “Trieste”-from new angles.

Among the new pieces, “December, Remember” is haunted by chromatic passages and has segments of full-bodied, two-handed playing that contrasts with his customary spareness. Lewis takes similar orchestral approaches during “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?” “Cain and Abel,” a three-part composition close to sonata form, evokes the story’s elements, incorporating a moving transition from brotherhood to the tragedy of a funereal ending.

Lewis Nash is the drummer throughout. Six tracks have bassist Marc Johnson and guitarist Howard Collins; four have George Mraz and Howard Alden. All the sidemen are exquisitely attuned to Lewis on this indispensable album.

Originally Published