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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:

4. Modern Jazz Quartet: 'Vendome' (MJQ; Prestige, 1956 [originally recorded December 22, 1952])

4. Modern Jazz Quartet: 'Vendome' (<i>MJQ</i>; Prestige, 1956 [originally recorded December 22, 1952])
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Lewis’ crowning achievement remains his integration into jazz of fugue, the contrapuntal classical form most frequently associated with Johann Sebastian Bach. That achievement began with “Vendome,” recorded several times over the years but premiered in 1952. In the original version it’s quite Bach-like: Vibraphonist Milt Jackson states the melody’s first strain in tempered, even quarter-notes, with bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke accompanying him; as Jackson moves on to the second strain, Lewis enters with the first (albeit expressed in harmony to the vibes). It doesn’t stay so baroque, quickly slipping into easy swing via bluesy chords from Lewis and a dyed-in-the-wool bebop solo from Jackson—quoting Charlie Parker’s “Bird of Paradise,” no less, then back into fugal structure. This tune was controversial in its time, but today it’s unquestionably a leading example of the nebulous concept of “chamber jazz.”

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.