How Eric Lewis, Jazz Pianist, Became ELEW He's been wowing audiences since he was barely able to walk. But, fed up with the standard jazz career path, Lewis -- or ELEW, as he calls his latest musical identity -- has embraced a new repertoire: rock songs. He performs live at NPR.
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How Eric Lewis, Jazz Pianist, Became ELEW

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How Eric Lewis, Jazz Pianist, Became ELEW

How Eric Lewis, Jazz Pianist, Became ELEW

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The jazz pianist Eric Lewis has been wowing audiences since he was barely able to walk. He grew up in a household full of music teachers and multiple pianos. Tinkling keys were the soundtrack of his childhood.

Mr. ERIC LEWIS (Jazz Pianist): (Singing)

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Lewis 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 rock-jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: That's Lewis, now 36 years old, on a piano here this week in Studio 4A.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: We're so glad to have you with us.

Mr. LEWIS: I appreciate it. I'm glad to be here.

NORRIS: Now, you've had a storied career as a jazz musician as Eric Lewis, but you are here with us today as ELEW.

Mr. LEWIS: That's right.

NORRIS: That's what you're called now.

Mr. LEWIS: Yup, yup. That's the name of the dude and the name of the band.

NORRIS: Let's talk about �Mr. Brightside,� because I'd like you to deconstruct one of your rock-jazz tunes. And �Mr. Brightside� is a song by the Killers, and before we hear your version of the song, perhaps it's instructive for us, it'll help us understand what you're doing if we hear the original.

(Soundbite of song, �Mr. Brightside�)

THE KILLERS (Band): (Singing) Open up my eager eyes, �cause I'm Mr. Brightside.

NORRIS: And forgive me, I don't know how many people are actually in the band, but you've got a vocalist, you've got the guitar, you've got the drum, you've got the keyboards - and you have to reach that crescendo in a way that multiple people do, again, only with that single instrument.

Mr. LEWIS: Okay, well, I'll just do it piece by piece then. Here's the intro that I play.

(Soundbite of song, �Mr. Brightside�)

Mr. LEWIS: So that's the, you know, the opening guitar that you heard.


And then I break it down to�

(Soundbite of song, �Mr. Brightside�)

Mr. LEWIS: So I utilize�

NORRIS: Did you have to stop?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEWIS: I thought you wanted me to. I can do it again uninterrupted.

NORRIS: No, it was just so lovely.

Mr. LEWIS: 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. You know, just interfacing with pop culture 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.

NORRIS: Your playing is very physical. And in some sense, it's a shame that this is radio because to watch you is to watch a kind of performance art. You channel your music. I mean, I've seen you perform live, and at one point, it seemed like the keyboard was not enough. You couldn't get the sound that you wanted to convey just out of the keyboard, and you reached inside and started playing the strings.

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah, well, people are used to seeing kids jump around. 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. But in jazz, it's like�

Mr. LEWIS: (Singing)

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. I've got to show everyone how I feel because I've found that sometimes if I'm a little too subtle, or if I expect people to get it without me extending myself, I found that people don't get it, you know.

NORRIS: I'm hoping you can give us almost like a little bit of a master class. You seem to see inspirations or connections throughout the jazz and the pop and the rock world all the time, and I'm hoping you can help us understand where that's evident. And, you know, the connection, perhaps, between ragtime and rock �n' roll.

Mr. LEWIS: Right. Well, let's take �Maple Leaf Rag� for a moment - Scott Joplin.

(Soundbite of song, �Maple Leaf Rag�)

Mr. LEWIS: That kind of sound, you know, I hear that in �Sweet Home Alabama,� Lynyrd Skynyrd, for instance.

(Soundbite of song, �Sweet Home Alabama�)

Mr. LEWIS: For me, I can hear how, like, this kind of sound of�

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEWIS: Fits in perfectly with the rock element. Of course, you know, the way that rock does it, it's less, you know, emphasized in that overt kind of way, but the vocabulary on the surface level is very similar.

NORRIS: Eric, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming down to D.C., for visiting with us in Studio 4A. I'd love if you'd take us out with a little bit of music. Do you mind?

Mr. LEWIS: Nope. No problem. No problem.

(Soundbite of song, "The Diary of Jane")

NORRIS: That's ELEW, otherwise known as Eric Lewis. To hear more of his music and see a video of his performance, go to our Web site, that's

(Soundbite of song, �The Diary of Jane�)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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