Jazz pianist Eric Lewis has been wowing audiences since he was barely able to walk.
He grew up in a household full of pianos and music teachers — both his mother and grandmother taught the entire neighborhood to play. Tinkling keys were the soundtrack of his childhood.
Lewis later won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition and went on to play with jazz luminaries such as Ornette Coleman and Wynton Marsalis. He was a member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
But in recent years, he decided to step out on his own and pursue his vision of what he calls “rock-jazz.”
“The idea is that, you know, I’m taking a piece from the pop culture much the same way that Louis Armstrong played ‘Hello, Dolly’ with Barbra Streisand,” Lewis says. “You know, just interfacing in a certain kind of way that allows me to express my ingenuity, versatility, virtuosity without hijacking the sound of the genre and at the same time, preserving the elements of jazz, which are central and beloved.”
During a recent performance in NPR’s Studio 4A, Lewis spoke with host Michele Norris. Now 36, he’s still the same dynamic performer, channeling the intensity of his music with energetic physicality. But as he’s embraced popular music, he’s also created a new musical identity: ELEW.
“People are used to seeing kids jump around,” Lewis says. “You know, the target audience, the audience that’s spending money on music, like rock and hip-hop — they’re used to seeing people get really physically involved in their music.
“And so my notion is that in order for me to make a living — in order for me to enjoy myself, for that matter — I’ve got to get more athletically involved,” he says. “I’ve got to show everyone how I feel.”
As ELEW, Lewis may be abandoning the traditional jazz repertoire. But he doesn’t say that he’s abandoning jazz. For example, he pointed out the ragtime underpinnings of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, comparing Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” with “Sweet Home Alabama.”
“Of course, the way the rock [band] does it, it’s less emphasized in that overt kind of way,” he says. “But the vocabulary on the surface level is very similar.”
Lewis ended the interview with his version of “The Diary of Jane,” by the alt-rock band Breaking Benjamin.