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John Lewis: Evolution

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Lewis’ distillation of melody, harmony, time and touch reaches its most exquisite expression here in “Django,” a composition he wrote in memory of Django Reinhardt in 1953 and has played thousands of times. In this mesmerizing solo piano program, he presents “Django” in the next phase of its interpretive evolution. Lewis lets the three strains pass at the pace of a stately processional, so slowly that in seven-and-a-half minutes he plays only four choruses. He seems to be selecting the notes and lining up the chords to position them like jewels, putting them in the most intense and revealing light. It is rare for a pianist-composer to meld his strengths of intellect and heart to offer so intimate a view inside a piece. Beethoven did in the opus 78 and 81a sonatas, Bill Evans in “Peace Piece,” Ellington in “Lotus Blossom.”

In “For Ellington,” Lewis develops nearly the same emotional weight as in “Django.” Only its broader stylistic range keeps it from achieving the same concentration of feeling. In all 11 tracks, Lewis’ simplicity and profundity go, like Count Basie’s, beyond mere musicianship into musicality, the most expressive use of the material at hand. Thus, the joyousness of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Cherokee” and the rollicking sketch called “At the Horse Show” have specific gravity to equal that of the slower and more somber pieces.

Every overeducated, overbusy, sound-alike young jazz player would benefit from a few days alone with Mr. Lewis’ album. Its lesson is that music of value is made by discovering oneself, not by memorizing which fashionable diminished whole tone scales go with which acceptable altered notes.