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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:

7. John Lewis: Essence: John Lewis Plays the Compositions & Arrangements of Gary McFarland (Atlantic, 1962)

7. John Lewis: <i>Essence: John Lewis Plays the Compositions & Arrangements of Gary McFarland</i>  (Atlantic, 1962)

The Modern Jazz Quartet was Lewis’ primary musical vehicle—for proof, consider that on sessions under his own name, he almost always used at least one fellow Quartet member. But he was perfectly capable of playing brilliantly in other contexts, even on someone else’s compositions and arrangements. Essence finds him leading an 18-piece big band, with robust and unusual voicings (e.g., tuba, flute, oboe, bassoon, basset horn, and two French horns) and MJQ drummer Connie Kay. But these are Gary McFarland’s tunes and charts, and they have a profoundly cinematic feel to them that’s out of place in Lewis’ corpus. Nevertheless, he handles himself ably, with an authentic blues on “Tillamook Two” and the hard-swinging “Notions” standing as proof that cool Lewis could burn as hard as anyone. “Another Encounter” finds Lewis as close to his Third Stream home as he could get here, but he still handles it with more soul than concert mannerism.

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.