Jazz At SXSW: ELEW, John Platania

ELEW

hide captionAt the White House: an Eric Lewis by any other name ...

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Even amid the 1,981 mostly rock bands from around the world at this year's South By Southwest Music Festival, I found some jazz.

Well, I found a jazz musician and a guitar player who loves jazz and jazz vinyl.

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Pianist ELEW used to be known as Eric Lewis. He built a respectable pedigree, coming through groups led by Elvin Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Wynton Marsalis and Roy Hargrove, among many others. In fact, he won the 1999 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition.

I caught up with ELEW and his manager in the lobby of the Driskill Hotel in the middle of all the SXSW hoopla. They were speaking with the USA Today hotel blogger (that would be my wife) about ELEW's new move to include hotels as part of his touring itinerary. It's a growing trend that a handful of performers of various styles are testing out: small, intimate performances in lobbies and lounges normally reserved for local acts. (Don't worry, the locals are not getting edged out: these performances are occasional offerings.)

With intense-looking young rockers in skinny jeans and too-cool-for-school Gen-X music fans milling about, ELEW spoke about how this new approach to performance fits in nicely with his own unconventional musical philosophy of melding ragtime, rock and pop. He calls it "rockjazz." (Hear it for yourself on this 2009 video session produced here at NPR). An unconventional approach performed in an unlikely venue.

I have to say, I'm all for any move that gets the music and the music fan as close as possible. In an age where we listen to music largely through tiny earbuds, the idea of being able to hear a musician perform less than 10 feet away is way cool. And if the musician is as adventurous as ELEW, you're bound to get an evening of music that will linger longer than your average jazz club experience.

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Trying to escape the carnival that is Austin's Sixth Street after dark, I had a quiet dinner with a trio of SXSW vets: legendary songwriter Chip Taylor, his manager Heinz Geissler and guitarist John Platania.

Over a hot bowl of Shepherd's Pie and pork chops, the talk somehow veered to one of my favorite subjects, vinyl. Turns out Platania is a serious jazz fan — his early inspirations included Wes Montgomery — and he told tales of using downtime on the road with longtime bosses Van Morrison and Taylor to scour record stores in cities big and small. John has been living the touring musician's life since the early 1970s, and he told the table of some mouth-watering finds along the way.

By the way, check out Platania's discography and take note of the list of names he's performed with over the years.

His career is further proof of my pet soapbox subject: that jazz has influenced, and continues to influence the popular culture of this country. When people hear John Platania (and so many others like him who have a place for jazz in their musical psyche), they are affirming the jazz stamp on our collective musical consciousness.

Even at South By Southwest.

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