John Lewis Evolution (Atlantic)
Reviewed by Harvey Pekar, Fri., Dec. 31, 1999
Evolution (Atlantic)Composer/arranger and Modern Jazz Quartet musical director John Lewis played piano in the bands of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lester Young, and has made some fine albums featuring himself on that instrument. He's got a distinctive solo style, characterized by economy, a light touch, attractive melodic ideas, and unhurried-but-precise articulation. In the Forties and Fifties, his playing was less syncopated than that of other bop pianists, e.g. Bud Powell, and relatively speaking, he didn't emphasize swinging so much, which is why drummer Kenny Clarke supposedly left MJQ. At times, there's a Baroque influence in Lewis' playing and compositional style. All these virtues are on display during this unaccompanied album, as well as the self-consciousness that mars Lewis' work. The tunes here include Lewis compositions that he revisits, standards, and new pieces such as "For Ellington" and "At the Horse Show." The lack of a bassist and drummer allow Lewis to play even more ruminatively than usual, although this also has something to do with his work here being less vigorous. He employs rubato and tempo changes, his solos are less boppish, and the influence of pre- 20th-century classical and pre-bop jazz music, e.g. the playing of Earl Hines, Art Tatum, and the stride pianists, can be detected in his playing. The lyricism and orderliness of Lewis' work is exemplary, but along with it comes get excessive refinement and formality; they're part of his style and therefore can't be separated from it. Despite this, John Lewis remains a creative and unique improviser, so if one has to put up with some effeteness when listening to his work, they should do so gladly.