Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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ELEW: the revELEWtion will not be televised…


ELEW is one of jazz music’s greatest geniuses and masterminds. Armed with an impressive repertoire of pop and rock songs, a theatrical persona and the attention span of the world’s greatest Army general, the fearless piano prodigy and manipulator knows that he is destined for greatness. Though jazz critics and record executives have marginalized and ostracized him in the past, ELEW is holding his own; he’s an evolving musical activist, a self-sufficient entrepreneur and the opening act on a world tour with pop/rock vocalist Josh Groban (soon Dave Matthews). After an intimate performance in Midtown Atlanta, I sat down with ELEW over some coconut water and double shots of Bailey’s to discuss his musical career, his reading list, social media, Jay-Z, Barack Obama and his views on jazz music and the industry.

I was told from the very beginning by Nancy Hirsch, “Just watch his hands!” She even gave me the best seat in the house – and with good reason, too -- a nice comfy chair directly in front of a grand Yamaha piano and two microphones. I was then introduced to ELEW (nee Eric Lewis) by Hirsch, his manager.

I was immediately impressed with this musical rev(ELEW)tionary – a cool brotha rockin’ full length arm bracelets (his “armor”), a maroon jacket, black denim, black shirt, a mini Afro and suede Fendi sneakers with his hands in his pocket -- telling me he’s fine and mellow after he shakes my hand. His signature sound, “Rockjazz,” is a genre-bending mesh of classical and jazz piano morphing into gargantuan rock, pop, ragtime, blues and R&B. He says “Rockjazz” is a total reaction to jazz being perceived as a failing market and stagnant genre of music. ELEW has the same electrifying rock star persona and theatrical dexterity of Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Carlos Santana, Prince and Jimi Hendrix: pullin’ a musical 180 strong enough to turn Briza, a swank restaurant and lounge in Midtown Atlanta’s Renaissance Hotel, this Jun. 8, 2011 evening into a rock arena. There wasn’t a stool in sight. His right leg was a 90 degree angle. ELEW closed his eyes, faced his head upright and nodded his head to the rhythm. You can even see him mumble the lyrics to the songs he performed. This dude has prodigy and genius written all over him.

“The repertoire that I play – a lot of it is totally guitar music. It’s totally not arranged for piano. In order to play it on piano convincingly, you really gotta be able to play! You gotta have a technique; it’s a power. That’s why I made mine big and loud and in an arena style because it plays to my strength – the physical strength, which sets me apart anyway. To make a long story short because I know I can get convoluted and long-winded, I had to theft proof everything. I had to make it so it’s cool. It looks great, but you ain’t stealing this no time soon either.”

ELEW is a one man jam, and I could feel the music’s crescendos in all of its force, precision, vigor and power. Check this (all from the same musician): The Killers’ 'Mr. Bright Side,' Breaking Benjamin’s 'The Diary of Jane,' Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 'Sweet Home Alabama' and The Knife’s 'Heartbeats' (ELEW plays pizzicato with the piano’s strings). He segues into a blues number before he flips it back to The Foo Fighters’ 'M.I.A.,' an original piece titled 'Thanksgiving,' Nirvana’s 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' Coldplay’s 'Clocks,' Duke Ellington’s 'It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)' and Michael Jackson’s 'Human Nature.' The intimate audience is so amazed by his performance, one audience member requests a Prince tune. He says he has some things to work out. Instead, ELEW cranks out Rufus featuring Chaka Khan’s 'Ain’t Nobody:' immediately followed by two more encores. Briza’s crowd wasn’t the only set of people eating up ELEW’s musical integrity.

When I told ELEW he was a visionary, a jazz impresario and a rock and roll artist all meshed into one spirit, he told me I was correct. When I asked him for his definition of a rebel, he says a rebel is a patriot or a freedom fighter: a true embodiment of his advocacy to uphold the principles of jazz. “Sony, Blue Note, Verve – whoever else – you guys had your artists. Y’all blew it ‘cause you weren’t smart enough. Quite simply not smart enough. I’m smarter than y’all when it comes to this.”

Not only is he on tour with Josh Grobin, but he is also set to go out on the road opening for Dave Matthews. “All kinds of people are getting with my style. To come up with something that’s working and at the same time technically difficult and innovative is a dream come true. I had to come up with a particular technique to overcome a situation. It’s working now, and it’s a great feeling to see it work.”

ELEW’s skills are undeniable but haven’t always been a big hit with jazz critics and record executives. One particular critic in Buffalo, New York recently gave him the title “genius” but before that, there were written catcalls such as “insane” that encouraged the musician to do his own thing. A New York Times writer even said that ELEW chose some of the worst music to play in his repertoire. ELEW finds it quite funny. “The critics, doubters and naysayers in New York tried to cut me to pieces, and I couldn’t get a record deal on top of it. They were worried they wouldn’t be able to control me. They wanted to be in charge of the next name of a movement within jazz; that’s what pissed them off. They wanted to go for the invalidation route and shun me. Jazz needs a facelift; it’s become a gerontocracy -- basically, a bunch of old guys who are musically irrelevant. Essentially, they’ve failed to keep pace with the competitive shaping forces of the time.”

Let ELEW also tell you, how he attacks his instrument is a combination of his passion for music with his desire to have total disregard for the status quo. “These guys were not playing this stuff with power, and that’s why it’s not crossing over ‘cause that was the big point to even play rock. The stuff would never cross over because they weren’t playing it right. You don’t understand. People know the lyrics to Coldplay. They know the lyrics to Breaking Benjamin. When you trigger people’s nostalgia, it’s a mutual experience. That’s the big problem because a lot of the critics don’t know the lyrics and don’t even understand that this song is supposed to be aggressive. It’s not supposed to swing. These tunes are way different than anything in jazz.”

ELEW gives the gatekeepers the benefit of the doubt. “These guys have been sleeping at the wheel. They are accepting of difference. The kind of status I run into has everything to do with egos and power. They don’t like that I created this thing called ‘Rockjazz’ and that I publicized it.”

Hirsch, his self-proclaimed “team supreme,” was always curious about ELEW’s inability to penetrate the marketplace. She didn’t know anything about jazz but knew first-hand that ELEW has something different to offer. “She had that fundamental curiosity. She didn’t know jazz from a hole in the wall – nothing. We just established our gangsterism. Between the two of us, we’ve outdone whole record companies. Why? They don’t study. Had they done what they were supposed to, I wouldn’t have had a shot. That’s why they don’t have a shot on what I’m doing because I’m doing everything correct. I knew how to win. She had a lot of the information about the business world – what it looks like and how it moves. It’s all by virtue of those shaping forces: all those blows I took. ”

If jazz was one of the most well-known street corners in the universe, ELEW would’ve probably been around the block quite a few times. The Camden, New Jersey native – a 1999 Thelonius Monk International Piano Competition winner – knew he was gonna be a tough act to follow: earning a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music and a chance meeting with jazz musician Wynton Marsalis at age 13. Marsalis was so impressed by ELEW’s talents, the pianist was invited to tour, perform and record with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Before long, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, drummer Elvin Jones and vocalist Cassandra Wilson also requested ELEW’s talents.

The inspiration behind ELEW’s “Rockjazz” sound (he says he is a jazz purist) came post hearing Linkin Park’s 2003 album, Meteora. Once he heard it, he knew he could take his progressive style a step further. “[Linkin Park] opened my head up and gave me concept. Do you hear how much energy is up in this stuff? These fools are really gettin’ down, and it’s almost jazzy. The lyrics were really getting me because they were so simple and spoke about psychological pain. Everything was just so perfect.”

ELEW ‘Tweets heavily: documenting how he practices constantly, sleeps with his keyboard and wakes up with it. Quite observant when it comes to social media and networking, he pays close attention to YouTube videos, MySpace profiles and various websites. Once he saw maximums of 100K and millions of views for karaoke versions of popular tunes, ELEW had found the missing link. His skills have also caught the ears of Donna Karen, Forest Whitaker, Sting, Gerard Butler, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Leonardo DiCaprio, David Duchovny and Hugh Jackman. The Obamas even invited ELEW to the White House to tickle the ivories. “It’s super serious, and for my brand [what Nancy and I are doing] is utterly hardcore. We’re leaving no stone unturned. We’re all about the pedal to the metal – extreme mission success. Everything is completely expedited. We’ve made sacrifices; I’ve burned bridges. I’ve made enemies, so now we gotta play harder, and it’s nothing. We’re utilizing everything like octopus tentacles.”

Speaking of Obama, ELEW shares an intense even kilter connection with the President of the United States: further going into detail about Obama being responsible for taking down Osama Bin Laden and drawing a comparison from the public and media scrutiny the President still faces to this day to his own musical infiltration of jazz. “I’m conducting business. Step aside and learn something perhaps. Try that! That’s the one thing I found really negligent about critics is that they neglected to even deal with the merits that were in my work even in its embryonic state. There’s something to be learned about what I’m doing: dissin’ me, trash talkin’ me – I got enough of that in the chess world. I’m already ready for that. I know how to handle that.”

ELEW considers himself to be “the Jay-Z of jazz:” taking a moment to recite some of his favorite lines from “22 Twos” (you broke/what the fuck you gon’ tell me?) in between another swig of coconut water and Bailey’s. The two artists have never met one-on-one – only in passing when the rapper/entrepreneur, along with U2’s Bono, saw ELEW play at a party for Butler – but definitely hopes to have personal contact once he returns to New York. “My story is similar to his. He couldn’t get a record deal, so he created his own thing. His style is the most compelling (or one of the most compelling out here). It’s the most long-standing and definitely the most profitable so far. He has the authenticity thing going, too!”

ELEW has quite the astute mind: an avid reader with the psyche of a master war general. He’s heavy into neuroscience, anthropology, zoology, the ballet, the female mind and most importantly military history. He speaks extensively in between his swigs of coconut water chased by Bailey’s about Navy seals, barriers of entry, The Marine Sniper by Carlos Hathcock, The 23 Immutable Laws of Branding, The Art of War, James Bond (particularly Dr. No) and kung fu movies. “I created my own defense. The biggest boobytrap I was looking at in jazz was theft. Wearing armor is fun. Standing is fun; it looks good and all of that. People love to see it, and it works great. I knew my enemy. My enemy already proved to me the lengths he would go.”

Take notes; ELEW is a musical warrior who clearly knows what he’s up against. He’s an entrepreneur: the CEO of his own label imprint, Ninjazz, and released his debut album, 'ELEW Rockjazz, Volume 1,' himself. The self-proclaimed chess master and hustler who groomed himself in New York City’s Washington Square Park knows the art of strategy, implementation and outwitting his opposition. “I’m living off the enemy’s resources: letting them do the market research for me. If they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, all of their virtuosos and prodigies would’ve had the marketplace in a position where they were like ‘We don’t need no ELEW.’ We already have a guy wearing armor killin’ it. After playing with Elvin Jones two years, touring with Wynton, recording six records, winning the Monk competition, Dean’s List, full scholarship, Manhattan School of Music graduate, adding to that Phil Haynes and Cassandra Wilson – I’m just some piano player? Are you gonna play that card? Okay, give me a second. I’ll be right back. Boom…now everybody’s crying. Well…who’s crying now?”

Yes, ELEW goes in and goes to the extreme. The musical warrior is ready to slay any dragon and to take the industry head on at all costs. He thinks if other journalists and critics would’ve asked more (or the right questions) or listened to what he was trying to accomplish earlier, they would appreciate how progressive he is. At the close of this interview, ELEW even sings an acapella version of Kool and the Gang’s 1980 classic “Celebration.” “I have nothing to fear. No one’s gonna do anything. All they’re gonna do is type up their little article, but we’ll just have somebody type up another article. It’s fine. There’s gonna come a moment where we’re gonna look back, and the negative articles that you’ve seen by the critics in New York they’re gonna have to answer for it. They’re gonna be made to look stupid. I chose my side; you chose yours.”
Words Christopher Daniel

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

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