Forget everything you think you know about how a jazz musician should be and remix it, Eric Lewis style. If you like your music shaken and stirred – a cocktail of jazz mixed with rock with a hint of metal and a smattering of punk – then Eric Lewis is your man. Lewis is on a mission to transform jazz from a niche to a mainstream pop genre with his innovative hard rock piano interpretations. The 34-year-old classically-trained pianist has taken some of contemporary music’s biggest hits and turned them on their heads with his dramatic virtuoso performances. Think Coldplay’s The Scientist or Linkin Park’s Somewhere I Belong. This is a brother on the rise. If his determination is anything to go by then success for the New Jersey native is assured. “Right now I’m just interested in being an extreme professional and a master rocker so that when my audience leave my show, everybody’s clothes are wet from dancing, they had a good time and all the scientific stuff has been made fun,” Lewis says.
Here at Clutch we like to highlight people who are about to blow up and Eric Lewis is on the verge of stardom. The piano protÃ©gÃ© stepped out from behind the keys to reveal a bit about himself, from his “salty” relationship with ex-mentor Wynton Marsalis to life in the cutthroat world of jazz. We get up close and personal with music’s newest celebrity-in-waiting as he comes out of the shadows. Introducing Eric Lewis, in his own words…
On being a black child practicing a predominantly white art form
I come from four generations of classical musicians so I never caught the racial element too much. Until the age of about 11 or 12 I was taking piano lessons in the house so that was just life for me. I grew up in Camden, New Jersey, which was no hood, but I wasn’t really around white people too much. It wasn’t until I got to high school, which was in the suburbs, that I first started noticing the cultural differences between black folk and white folk. For example, one time, when I was in physics class, the teacher announced that class was getting out early this particular day so I shouted out, “Ho-o!” cos that’s what we did where I’m from, even in school so it was no big deal. But when I did that in that classroom everybody looked at me like I was from Mars. Another black kid turned around and looked at me and he had a real funny grin on his face. He knew what it was all about but he also knew what the deal was but I didn’t know about it. That’s when I first realized like, “Oh, ok. There’s something different going on around here.”
On becoming business savvy
After a certain point of my apprenticeship I got to the end of the rainbow but there was no pot of gold. I won the Monk competition; I didn’t get a record deal. I played with all the masters and that was according to tradition, you know, you play with all your masters and then you get your own forum. But that wasn’t happening for me. No one was saying “we see his musical vision, we understand, let’s get behind him.” So I had to start taking some initiative and making some different moves. I achieved all the musical things that I wanted to achieve, especially at the educational level but I was very naÃ¯ve about business and there was no one to really teach me that. I just had to pick it up through falling in with a bunch of motley chess hustlers in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. These guys were all ex-cons and street hustlers and chess masters. They would beat me all the time and I was losing a lot of money. But they woke me up to the business world where it was almost as if I was paying for business schooling at the street level. So once they busted my skull up a few times, metaphorically speaking, I started looking around saying, “Wow! I need to get a piece of this action” as opposed to being in fantasyland about music.
On his relationship with Wynton Marsalis
The thing about Wynton was that he taught me to get a good feel for what strength is about. He had an impressiveness that went on with him but his music always kind of came up short when it came to really arresting me on the inside. However, his militant stance mixed with his apparent appeal to the ladies, plus the fact that he dressed in these great suits and he’s black like me, caused me to develop an attraction to wanting to be around him and to learn and be a part of what he was about. And in him I saw a future, a pathway as a young kid coming up. I saw that that’s what New York is about, ok, I wanna go to New York and be like that and have what he has. So let’s just say I was covetous of it. And my covetousness sometimes was honorable or understandable as just basic ambition but then sometimes we’d bump heads and it would turn into another less functional kind. I’d say our relationship now is tense. I think he’s kind of a little salty that I left but I had to.
On why he left Marsalis’s band
Basically the concept is that I decided to become a sell-out, there’s kind of an air of that going on which in my mind is just him [Marsalis] being naÃ¯ve because what am I supposed to do? Besides that world is his world. There’s no place for me really in just straight jazz. And all that they had for me was the position of a sideman. And looking around, seeing Kanye West and all these people who were walking around doing well and doing what they want, even Linkin Park, it caused me to think to myself, “What’s the point of all my teachers, what was all their teaching and sacrifice for? What was all my mother’s and my own personal blood, sweat and tears for if I’m just going to let it fly away like that?”
On what makes him different
First of all, my repertoire. I play Linkin Park and make it rock. When I play it on piano I play just as hard as the band does when they have the singer and stuff like that. And in order to do that it takes a tremendous amount of technique and piano mastery. There are so few pianists, I can’t really think of any, who are doing that at all because, in order to do it, one would have to have what I have, which is an improvisational precision as well as a historical familiarity with piano styles ranging from 1709 to present day. And I can take my road of improvisation where all kinds of exciting things can happen and the audience can actually experience the rollercoaster. The average paying audience member is very unfamiliar with the jazz repertoire. If I played Clocks by Coldplay everybody knows that in general. Now if I played Pinocchio by Wayne Shorter not many people know that but the thing about that is there are very few piano players that can handle Coldplay and The Killers and then turn around and play Wayne Shorter and Thelonious Monk. So it is in this element that I’m different and this difference is a hard one to come by.
On losing weight to get the girl
I found out that my girlfriend cheated on me, and I was trying to get that to impress upon me that I had to lose weight and really step my act up, because a lot of times I tried to just be about the music, when in fact the industry is also looking for image and beauty. I was being naÃ¯ve. I was also in a situation where I was around a lot of individuals who weren’t really kind to me even though I was honest about my ambitions. I always gave 150% on the bandstand but a lot of times they weren’t very kind to me in terms of the mistakes that I was making. I guess I can just chalk it up to competition. Now that I’ve struck out on my own it’s time to be cute.
On what’s next
I’m actually writing a script. I want to direct a horror picture. I’m in the process of setting that up. And I’m also working on a record that’s gonna have this whole rock piano thing, taking all my art experiences and Rumpelstiltskinning it in to something that the average person can listen to over and over again, something they can rock to but also enjoy all the virtuosity without it distracting from the simplicity and the power of the rock. I’ve gotta work all the bugs out of it… but it’s coming soon.
For more on Eric Lewis visit www.ericlewisgroove.com.