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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:

3. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1957 [originally recorded in 1949 and 1950])

3. Miles Davis: <i>Birth of the Cool</i> (Capitol, 1957 [originally recorded in 1949 and 1950])

After Miles, the plaudits for the groundbreaking Birth of the Cool sessions tend to fall to Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan. Well do they deserve them—but we shouldn’t forget John Lewis, whose arranging work on “Move” leads off the album. This time, not only is the pianist not prominent, it isn’t even Lewis: It’s Al Haig. But the chart for Denzil Best’s masterpiece features some unique voicings—paired instrument parts—that would become signatures of the Lewis arranging style. So would the staccato phrasings that were, to be fair, part and parcel of Best’s composition but become Lewis’ own, especially in the shout chorus. You hear those same hallmarks in “Budo,” a Davis composition that was another of Lewis’ arrangements, and on which he again didn’t play. There’s a bit more legato, and definitely more interaction (and finally a genuine Lewis piano solo!), on his own composition, “Rouge,” though it doesn’t swing any less for it. In any case, this is magic.

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.