Here's the Melody

John Lewis Keeps on Evolving

Gentility is a hard line to walk without falling into the straight and narrow, but the trio was too buoyant to worry about walking. From the first measures of "Blues in A Minor," introduced by Percy Heath's pizzicato and sparked into time by Herlin Riley's brushes, it locked into the most jubilant groove of the evening, and continued to negotiate between parlor and porch on the exquisite, heartbreaking "December, Remember," which adapts a theme from Lewis's "In Memoriam." That piece and the ever changing, ever radiant "For Ellington," a piece with history and memory in its bones, were the evening's flash points, underscoring why this performance was different from any other that evening in all the world's jazz clubs: an unfettered genius for the melodic phrase, poignant and robust, forthright and shameless. Between those pieces, Lewis played his splendid transcription of Charlie Parker's 1948 "Parker's Mood," on which Lewis made an early mark. The piano arrangement includes Parker's intro, Lewis's transition, Parker's solo, Lewis's solo, and then a new solo, and it's a highlight of Evolution II.

The big band segment was filled with surprises, as pieces formerly conceived for brass or voice were amplified to accommodate reeds, which were so richly voiced one could not escape the feeling that orchestration was an aspect of Lewis's gift that has gone underexploited. The orchestra began with "Animal Dance," an excerpt from the ballet Original Sin, but came alive in four episodes from the once maligned suite, The Comedy. Lewis compared the improvisational traveling troupes of commedia dell'arte to jazz's early territory bands, specifically the Young Family Band (as in Lester), and described each section vividly, priming the audience for the expressive aria with its dissonant note of dismay of "La Cantatrice" or the gorgeous, wide-open harmonies of "Piazza Novana." Eric Reed was an ironic choice as pianist, since his busy Petersonian attack is the antithesis of Lewis's, but he acquitted himself with panache, interpolating a neat Erroll Garner passage into "La Cantatrice." The other soloist was Marsalis, who got to shout a bit, a prelude to his more memorable escapades on a stunning revision of "Three Little Feelings," a triptych written to fill out Gunther Schuller's Music for Brassthat stole the LP. With Warren Smith and Wycliffe Gordon bouncing the first movement on timpani and tuba, respectively, Marsalis began his solo with a few decaying stabs of sound before going to town, more brazen than Miles Davis on the original, and more broadly romantic in the second movement, his dark growls entirely suitable to the ominous cast of the piece. A standing ovation brought an encore, but the enthusiasm mirrored not only Lewis's achievement but that of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which this time got it exactly right. Even the acoustics behaved. And if you wanted more, as I did, there was Evolution II, which closes with an ur-Lewis transfiguration: the old standard "What Is This Thing Called Love?" turned into a forceful sprint that builds to a passage of stalwart block chords, every chorus filled with melodic gems the equal of the tune to which they invariably allude—melody on top of melody; melody, melody, and more melody.

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