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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:

8. The Modern Jazz Quartet: Blues on Bach (Atlantic, 1974)

8. The Modern Jazz Quartet: <i>Blues on Bach</i> (Atlantic, 1974)

Any John Lewis biography would almost have to be titled Blues on Bach; those three words are his manifesto. This Modern Jazz Quartet album juxtaposes five arrangements of Bach pieces with four original blues, two by Lewis and two by Jackson. The blues are the most interesting—specifically, Lewis’ “Blues in B Flat” and Jackson’s “Blues in C Minor.” Jackson was the MJQ member most devoted to the blues; his “Bags’ Groove” joined “Vendome” and “Django” as the crown jewels of the band’s book. Yet “C Minor” is the most Lewis-like tune on the album, with a delicate melodic tack, a carefully architectural vibes solo, and Lewis’ thoughtful touch on his own improvisation. “B Flat,” by contrast, sounds like a Jackson tune, built on short riffage and savory blues licks (with both Lewis and Jackson going right into the gutbucket on their solos). But then, nothing Lewis or the MJQ did was ever as simple or predictable as it may have seemed.

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.