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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:

9. John Lewis and Hank Jones: Piano Play House (Toshiba EMI, 1979)

9. John Lewis and Hank Jones: <i>Piano Play House</i> (Toshiba EMI, 1979)

“But could he hang with other pianists?” you say. Why, glad you asked! Lewis worked regularly with Hank Jones in the late ’70s, recording and touring with and without rhythm sections. The Piano Play House concert, in Tokyo, actually does feature George Duvivier on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. Most of the time, however, Lewis and Jones work duo, Jones in the right stereo channel and Lewis in the left. (If his softer touch doesn’t give it away, the humming will.) Highlights include “St. Louis Blues,” with Lewis laying down the real deal while Jones plays figured bass, then Jones rising up to play some serious stride; “Confirmation,” showcasing powerfully fluent performances by two pianists who played with Bird; and a mighty duel on the fiendishly swinging “La Ronde,” a.k.a. “Two Bass Hit” (featuring a titanic drum solo from Manne to boot).

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.