Late in his life, the Italian novelist Italo Calvino described the essence of his craft as “the subtraction of weight.” “I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all, I have tried to remove weight from the structures of stories and from language.”
There’s something similar at work in the story of pianist John Lewis that continues into his 80th year. He was heard first in the busy midst of small bebop groups and then in the clangorous glory of Dizzy Gillespie’s late-’40s bebopping big band. After the demise of that band, he, in essence, resurrected the rhythm section (bass, drums, piano and vibes) to form the Modern Jazz Quartet. A band without parallel that evoked Bach and bop and made “tintinnabulation” a jazz lover’s term of adulation (thanks to the New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett), the MJQ had a glorious run that ended just short of five decades with the death, two years ago, of its soulfully soloing star, Detroiter Milt Jackson.
And now we hear Lewis floating freely, renewing and reasserting himself in 1999’s solo disc, Evolution, and the new Evolution II, which is less a group effort than an elegantly assisted solo piano date. Lewis is spry, expressing the most with the fewest notes. Gaily extroverted, he starts every tune, takes virtually every solo; yet, he’s so relaxed, so unhurried, so unflappable that even his left hand sometimes takes five. On each tune, the bassist (George Mraz or Marc Johnson), guitarist (Howard Collins or Howard Alden) and drummer (Lewis Nash) are deft accompanists, but they’re intended as pastel figures behind Lewis primary-color work. His arrangements here and there echo his intricate scripting for the MJQ, but never the MJQ’s equality of voices.
And, no, Lewis doesn’t have the Jackson gravitas that anchored the MJQ, but what he does have more than justifies tune after tune, from standards (“What is This Thing Called Love?” for instance), to MJQ classics (“Trieste” and a “Django” that ingeniously withholds its theme until the very end) to originals such as “That! Afternoon in Paris,” originals that just might become classics.
There’s an Evolution III in the works with a big band. After the first two installments, expectations couldn’t be higher. Here’s hoping everyone but Lewis stays in the background.
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.