Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1084

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ELEW: the revELEWtion will not be televisedâ¦


ELEW is one of jazz musicâs greatest geniuses and masterminds. Armed with an impressive repertoire of pop and rock songs, a theatrical persona and the attention span of the worldâs 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; heâs 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 Baileyâs 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, âJust watch his hands!â She even gave me the best seat in the house â 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 â a cool brotha rockinâ full length arm bracelets (his âarmorâ), a maroon jacket, black denim, black shirt, a mini Afro and suede Fendi sneakers with his hands in his pocket -- telling me heâs fine and mellow after he shakes my hand. His signature sound, âRockjazz,â is a genre-bending mesh of classical and jazz piano morphing into gargantuan rock, pop, ragtime, blues and R&B. He says âRockjazzâ 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: pullinâ a musical 180 strong enough to turn Briza, a swank restaurant and lounge in Midtown Atlantaâs Renaissance Hotel, this Jun. 8, 2011 evening into a rock arena. There wasnât 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.

âThe repertoire that I play â a lot of it is totally guitar music. Itâs 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; itâs a power. Thatâs why I made mine big and loud and in an arena style because it plays to my strength â 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 itâs cool. It looks great, but you ainât stealing this no time soon either.â

ELEW is a one man jam, and I could feel the musicâs crescendos in all of its force, precision, vigor and power. Check this (all from the same musician): The Killersâ 'Mr. Bright Side,' Breaking Benjaminâs 'The Diary of Jane,' Lynyrd Skynyrdâs 'Sweet Home Alabama' and The Knifeâs 'Heartbeats' (ELEW plays pizzicato with the pianoâs strings). He segues into a blues number before he flips it back to The Foo Fightersâ 'M.I.A.,' an original piece titled 'Thanksgiving,' Nirvanaâs 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' Coldplayâs 'Clocks,' Duke Ellingtonâs 'It Donât Mean a Thing (If It Ainât Got That Swing)' and Michael Jacksonâs '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 Khanâs 'Ainât Nobody:' immediately followed by two more encores. Brizaâs crowd wasnât the only set of people eating up ELEWâs 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. âSony, Blue Note, Verve â whoever else â you guys had your artists. Yâall blew it âcause you werenât smart enough. Quite simply not smart enough. Iâm smarter than yâall when it comes to this.â

Not only is he on tour with Josh Grobin, but he is also set to go out on the road opening for Dave Matthews. âAll kinds of people are getting with my style. To come up with something thatâs 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. Itâs working now, and itâs a great feeling to see it work.â

ELEWâs skills are undeniable but havenât always been a big hit with jazz critics and record executives. One particular critic in Buffalo, New York recently gave him the title âgeniusâ but before that, there were written catcalls such as âinsaneâ 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. âThe critics, doubters and naysayers in New York tried to cut me to pieces, and I couldnât get a record deal on top of it. They were worried they wouldnât be able to control me. They wanted to be in charge of the next name of a movement within jazz; thatâs what pissed them off. They wanted to go for the invalidation route and shun me. Jazz needs a facelift; itâs become a gerontocracy -- basically, a bunch of old guys who are musically irrelevant. Essentially, theyâve failed to keep pace with the competitive shaping forces of the time.â

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. âThese guys were not playing this stuff with power, and thatâs why itâs not crossing over âcause that was the big point to even play rock. The stuff would never cross over because they werenât playing it right. You donât understand. People know the lyrics to Coldplay. They know the lyrics to Breaking Benjamin. When you trigger peopleâs nostalgia, itâs a mutual experience. Thatâs the big problem because a lot of the critics donât know the lyrics and donât even understand that this song is supposed to be aggressive. Itâs not supposed to swing. These tunes are way different than anything in jazz.â

ELEW gives the gatekeepers the benefit of the doubt. âThese 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 donât like that I created this thing called âRockjazzâ and that I publicized it.â

Hirsch, his self-proclaimed âteam supreme,â was always curious about ELEWâs inability to penetrate the marketplace. She didnât know anything about jazz but knew first-hand that ELEW has something different to offer. âShe had that fundamental curiosity. She didnât know jazz from a hole in the wall â nothing. We just established our gangsterism. Between the two of us, weâve outdone whole record companies. Why? They donât study. Had they done what they were supposed to, I wouldnât have had a shot. Thatâs why they donât have a shot on what Iâm doing because Iâm doing everything correct. I knew how to win. She had a lot of the information about the business world â what it looks like and how it moves. Itâs all by virtue of those shaping forces: all those blows I took. â

If jazz was one of the most well-known street corners in the universe, ELEW wouldâve probably been around the block quite a few times. The Camden, New Jersey native â a 1999 Thelonius Monk International Piano Competition winner â 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 ELEWâs 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 ELEWâs talents.

The inspiration behind ELEWâs âRockjazzâ sound (he says he is a jazz purist) came post hearing Linkin Parkâs 2003 album, Meteora. Once he heard it, he knew he could take his progressive style a step further. â[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 gettinâ down, and itâs almost jazzy. The lyrics were really getting me because they were so simple and spoke about psychological pain. Everything was just so perfect.â

ELEW âTweets 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, Googleâs Eric Schmidt, Leonardo DiCaprio, David Duchovny and Hugh Jackman. The Obamas even invited ELEW to the White House to tickle the ivories. âItâs super serious, and for my brand [what Nancy and I are doing] is utterly hardcore. Weâre leaving no stone unturned. Weâre all about the pedal to the metal â extreme mission success. Everything is completely expedited. Weâve made sacrifices; Iâve burned bridges. Iâve made enemies, so now we gotta play harder, and itâs nothing. Weâre utilizing everything like octopus tentacles.â

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. âIâm conducting business. Step aside and learn something perhaps. Try that! Thatâs 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. Thereâs something to be learned about what Iâm doing: dissinâ me, trash talkinâ me â I got enough of that in the chess world. Iâm already ready for that. I know how to handle that.â

ELEW considers himself to be âthe Jay-Z of jazz:â taking a moment to recite some of his favorite lines from â22 Twosâ (you broke/what the fuck you gonâ tell me?) in between another swig of coconut water and Baileyâs. The two artists have never met one-on-one â only in passing when the rapper/entrepreneur, along with U2âs Bono, saw ELEW play at a party for Butler â but definitely hopes to have personal contact once he returns to New York. âMy story is similar to his. He couldnât get a record deal, so he created his own thing. His style is the most compelling (or one of the most compelling out here). Itâs the most long-standing and definitely the most profitable so far. He has the authenticity thing going, too!â

ELEW has quite the astute mind: an avid reader with the psyche of a master war general. Heâs 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 Baileyâs 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. âI 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.â

Take notes; ELEW is a musical warrior who clearly knows what heâs up against. Heâs 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 Cityâs Washington Square Park knows the art of strategy, implementation and outwitting his opposition. âIâm living off the enemyâs 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 wouldâve had the marketplace in a position where they were like âWe donât need no ELEW.â We already have a guy wearing armor killinâ it. After playing with Elvin Jones two years, touring with Wynton, recording six records, winning the Monk competition, Deanâs List, full scholarship, Manhattan School of Music graduate, adding to that Phil Haynes and Cassandra Wilson â Iâm just some piano player? Are you gonna play that card? Okay, give me a second. Iâll be right back. Boomâ¦now everybodyâs crying. Wellâ¦whoâs crying now?â

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 wouldâve 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 Gangâs 1980 classic âCelebration.â âI have nothing to fear. No oneâs gonna do anything. All theyâre gonna do is type up their little article, but weâll just have somebody type up another article. Itâs fine. Thereâs gonna come a moment where weâre gonna look back, and the negative articles that youâve seen by the critics in New York theyâre gonna have to answer for it. Theyâre gonna be made to look stupid. I chose my side; you chose yours.â
Words Christopher Daniel

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

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