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.
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.
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 Brass that 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.