Here's the Melody

John Lewis Keeps on Evolving

Melody is the rarest of musical talents and the most treasured, which is one reason only a handful of 19th-century composers continue to speak to us. Those that do are true melodists as opposed to generic ones: preachers who hear a kind of songfulness no one else has heard rather than parishioners who elaborate on that approach, reducing inspiration to style. The former may be few, yet they seem to arrive in groups, carrying the ball for a paternal titan, as though waiting for a properly melodious climate—Mozart kicking off for Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann; Verdi for Bizet, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini; Berlin for Kern, Rodgers, and Porter. This schema is simplistic, but it helps pass the time as we wait and wait and wait for melody's return. Maybe Mark Chapman just frightened it away.

Jazz has been abundant in melody, or should I say improvisational lyrics. It produces far fewer Jelly Roll Mortons, Duke Ellingtons, and Thelonious Monks than Louis Armstrongs, Lester Youngs, and Charlie Parkers. A more melodious musician than Young never lived, but his genius is to be found in ad-lib solos, not in his handful of copyrighted tunes. Stan Getz was immensely lyrical, yet never wrote a single important tune. On the other hand, some players are more adept at melodious themes than at sustaining them in variations, most prominently John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. At the present time, jazz is, inevitably, caught up in the same antimelodic vice as the rest of the musical landscape. So when we hear the real thing, it can be overwhelming.

Which leads me, as discussions of melody invariably do, to our greatest living melodist: John Lewis. Jazz at Lincoln Center presented him in a retrospective on January 18 and 21 called "Evolution: The Music of John Lewis," a title that positioned the concert as part of a project that launched his superb Atlantic CDs, Evolution and Evolution II. I considered the former the best record of 1999, and still do, and would have rated the latter almost as high if its release date hadn't spilled into 2001. The concert was just about perfect, an evening no one present is likely to forget; my inclination toward hyperbole is tempered only by the report of a reliable witness who says the second performance was even better.

By nature decorous and formal.
photo: Michael Kamber
By nature decorous and formal.

Though he is 80 and has been ailing, he insisted on standing after alternate selections to discuss the genesis of the preceding piece and the one he was about to play.

Lewis, who practically reinvented jazz presentation in the postwar era, in and out of concert halls, is by nature decorous and formal. His manners are such that, though he is 80 and has been ailing, he insisted on standing after alternate selections to discuss the genesis of the preceding piece and the one he was about to play. The formality extended to the program, which included four piano solos, four duets with Wynton Marsalis, four trios with Percy Heath and Herlin Riley, and a full set of big band works, as Lewis conducted the Lincoln Center Jazz Band with Eric Reed on piano. The great paradox about Lewis, however, is that his moderation masks a ruefully blues-driven vivacity that proceeds inexorably from the strategies of his compositions. More than anyone else, he has combined jazz and classical techniques into an insoluble whole, and yet they often bring him to a terrain (cf. "Cain and Abel" or "Come Rain or Come Shine" on Evolution II) one is more likely to associate with Ray Charles.

The first piece was startling, though it was by far the most familiar. "Django" established Lewis as a composer and the Modern Jazz Quartet as a going concern, and he has rewired it repeatedly, each time underscoring different elements. On the Evolution CDs, he offers two versions so dissimilar a casual listener might not realize they were developed from the same piece. He played the version from the first CD at the concert and articulated it in such a way that, until I went back to the disc, I thought it was yet another recomposition. The chief conceit is a repeated four-note bass clef arpeggio capped with ringing single notes in the treble that state the melody. By underscoring the arpeggio at the concert, he heightened the arrangement's drama. Lewis's ease with rests and uncanny ability to speed or retard time so that it is ever so slightly askew until he sets it right again turns drama into a mode of suspense sustained through the jauntily evolved "That Afternoon in Paris" ("La Marseillaise" leads to "The Old Folks at Home"), "Trieste" (no longer a tango), and the haltingly comical "The Festivals."

The duets with Marsalis began exuberantly with Lewis's ingenious variation on "Sailor's Hornpipe," a piece fraught with fast turns and loops that both men navigated with aplomb, Marsalis employing only a few half-valve gambits to color a bright and consistently inventive solo. The more customary "DeLaunay's Dilemma," with its "I Got Rhythm" changes, was similarly empathic. Lewis and Marsalis have clearly spent many hours working together, and for some reason the erstwhile bebopper, especially on this piece, brought out the young neoclassicist's swing—as opposed to bop—bias, evident in phrases more reminiscent of the generation of Roy Eldridge or Charlie Shavers than of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. On the sumptuous waltz "Skating in Central Park," however, the trumpet player faltered on the last eight measures, as if striving for the composer's understated lyricism but achieving only the guise of his gentility; he got his own back with an open-horn solo that at times recalled Ruby Braff, and on "Two Degrees East—Three Degrees West" wrestled between polite hesitancy and episodic bent-note wailing.

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