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JazzTimes 10: Essential John Lewis Recordings

Career highlights from a pillar of 20th-century jazz

Charlie Parker’s centennial won’t come until August of this year, but already it has overshadowed any other such celebration in the jazz world. Among those pushed aside is the great pianist and composer John Lewis, born May 3, 1920.

Lewis is not a minor figure in jazz. He was a pianist, composer, and arranger par excellence, and was the guiding force behind the (leaderless) Modern Jazz Quartet, which endured for the better part of 50 years as a pillar of the music. He was also one of the key figures in the Third Stream movement, bridging the jazz/classical divide—especially in his fascination with fugue and careful attention to form in his compositions.

Some of the 10 performances below are individual tracks, some complete albums. With Lewis, sometimes a single short-form piece is a marvel unto itself; at other times, you need the full force of an album to get the picture.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring many of the John Lewis tracks mentioned in this JazzTimes 10:

2. The Charlie Parker Quintet: 'Parker’s Mood' (Complete Savoy Sessions; Essential Jazz Classics, 2016 [originally recorded September 18, 1948])

2. The Charlie Parker Quintet: 'Parker’s Mood' (<i>Complete Savoy Sessions</i>; Essential Jazz Classics, 2016 [originally recorded September 18, 1948])

The converse of “Two Bass Hit”: Lewis didn’t write a single one of the two bars or 13 notes that make up this composition, but he does get two spotlight appearances on piano. Immediately following the melody, Lewis takes a four-bar interlude that comprises a daring, ascending leap, still a marvel in the way he sticks the landing. Then, after Parker turns in two 12-bar choruses, Lewis adds one of his own. It beautifully demonstrates how solid a feel the classically trained/inclined Lewis had for the blues (amplified by his soft humming along), while giving some hints of his conservatory-honed articulation and phrasing. It also makes fascinating use of the instrument’s resonance, implying harmonies not by playing notes against others per se, but by letting certain notes ring out and then laying subsequent notes over them. Still at the beginning of his career, with his real heights yet to come—Davis lobbied hard but in vain for Parker to make him a permanent member of the band—Lewis shows his tremendous gifts.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.