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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:

5. Modern Jazz Quartet: Django (Prestige, 1956)

5. Modern Jazz Quartet: <i>Django</i> (Prestige, 1956)
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“There is no leader in the Modern Jazz Quartet,” Milt Jackson remarked, “but John is the music director, and his personality dominates the music.” If that wasn’t true at the beginning, it became indisputable with Django, an album of music recorded between 1953 and 1955 and released on Prestige Records a year later. Five of the eight tracks are Lewis compositions, with the other three being his delicately balanced settings of “One Bass Hit,” “Autumn in New York” and “But Not for Me” (the latter has a particularly Lewis-ian use of a two-note motif). The originals include “La Ronde Suite”—a masterful reworking of “Two Bass Hit” as a fourfold piece on which each member gets a feature; the lithe “Delaunay’s Dilemma,” which would become a staple of the band’s repertoire (with melodic and harmonic ideas Lewis would often return to); and, of course, the title track. A tribute to Romani guitar legend Django Reinhardt, who’d died the year before the song was recorded, it opens on a mournful melody instantly evocative of Reinhardt’s “gypsy jazz” guitar. (Guitarist Jim Hall would refer to its compositional structure as “almost perfect.”) It then opens into not one but two strains of swing, as deeply infused with blues and bop ideas as anything in the jazz canon.

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.