In the beginning he was Eric Lewis, the Camden, New Jersey-born, piano wizard who won the 1999 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, and gigged with the best and brightest jazz stars, from Wynton Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson to Elvin Jones and Jon Hendricks. But when he didn’t get a record deal, he reinvented himself, changed his name to ELEW, and created “Rockjazz,” a danceable and original blend of traditional jazz, rock, R&B and hip-hop. His new CD, Rockjazz Vol. 2, is a solo piano tour-de-force, where he re-imagines the music of, U2, Joe Henderson and Michael Jackson.
EBONY talked with ELEW about the origins of Rockjazz, his critics and how he went from sideman to brand.
EBONY: You played with Wynton Marsalis and you recorded with Lil’ Wayne on his forthcoming CD, I Am Not A Human Being 2. Other than both of them being Black and from New Orleans, what could they possibly have in common?
ELEW: Harriet Tubman!
EBONY: Okay, you’re going to have to explain that.
ELEW: The relationship that Harriet Tubman has to Wynton, and the relationship she has to Lil’ Wayne is the same relationship I have to her. It has to do with this canon, this story of a people, of a place. So that’s the commonality that exists between the two.
I’ll tell you: When I was in the studio with Lil’ Wayne, his low, gravelly voice, and his professionalism, reminded me of Elvin Jones. It also reminded me of Miles Davis. When we recorded, we didn’t use a click track. It was just me and him; like a jazz session. So regardless of hip-hop and other controversial styles of music coming from the Afro-American community, the Harriet Tubman element is a powerful [connection]. It has the ability to turn a gulf into a tear.
EBONY: The piano links almost all forms of music. How is the instrument central to your Rockjazz concept?
ELEW: Rockjazz, from the pianistic angle, is in the same vein as boogie-woogie; a very piano-centric style, with rolling basslines and all of the ornamentations and figurations. It was a danceable style. Oscar Peterson played it, and it had masters like Meade Lux Lewis and James P. Johnson. That style was notoriously athletic, because you had to play that driving rhythm like a one-man band. And that’s consistent with what we hear in pop, disco, rock and hip-hop.
EBONY: You said that boogie-woogie is athletic. Is that why you play standing up?
ELEW: It’s a lovely combination of business and art coming together. I love to dance. And when I was developing this style, the challenge was how to distinguish myself in the industry. So I looked at pictures of myself and of rock bands. I noticed that in rock bands, nobody’s sitting down [laughs]. So I got rid of the piano bench. That led to muscle cramps. But I lost sixty pounds. I look good!
EBONY: So you adapted those mainstream piano jazz elements into a modern pop context. How did the jazz critics react to that?
ELEW: They panned me. They went for the jugular.
EBONY: Because they thought that you were selling out?
ELEW: Well, that’s too convenient. My belief is that they had issues with how I handled the business of it all, which has gotten me results. When I won the Monk competition I was utterly ignored by the jazz community, and didn’t get a record deal. I felt betrayed. So I had to come up with a way to deal with being ignored.
Rockjazz is also a brand name I came up with. I came up that idea from a book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. In the book it mentions, “If you can’t be number one in something, create something you’ll be number one in.” So Rockjazz was a method; a tool that I used to cut through the jive, and to fulfill my aspirations and goals.
EBONY: It’s a shame that the critics can’t see that your extension of jazz piano into the pop realm is part of the jazz tradition. In fact, you’re reminiscent of the 19th century New Orleans Creole pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was internationally known for combining classical, ragtime and Latin rhythms.
ELEW: Thank you!
EBONY: You talked about haters. But you’ve also got an impressive crew of fans. You’ve played at prestigious gigs like the TED Conference and the White House.
ELEW: Miles Davis had people like Greta Garbo and Frank Sinatra comes to see him. I got Naomi Campbell, Leonardo Da Caprio, Gerard Butler and Will Smith [coming to my gigs].
EBONY: Let’s talk about your New CD. You’re playing some exuberant and extroverted riffs on songs by The Doors, The Bravery, The Cranberries, and U2. But for me, your take on Michael Jackson’s classic, “Human Nature” – which I think is an exceptional composition – is very inventive. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer released his version of the before you did. What attracted you to the song?
ELEW: Every piano player that wants to play anything in the pop world is always faced with the challenge of playing too many notes. “Human Nature” is one of those rarities that has already has a very “notey” structure built into it … The riff sounds like a Scott Joplin ragtime tune, or a Latin montuno…
EBONY: And also the French Impressionists…
ELEW: Right! Certainly Debussy…So it’s rare to find a piece of music that’s a hit in the pop world that has that kind of ornamentation, especially in the R&B vein. So that’s my attraction to “Human Nature,” in terms of a piano player’s perspective. The other thing is that Vijay Iyer had done it. But the way that he did it was diluted by all of the metrical stuff. He did it in a different meter. He added and took away a lot of things. My Rockjazz concept has to do with being traditional, in the sense that I want to be able to hear the melody and the song and sing along with it. I loved the song, and I wanted to do a doper version than Vijay’s.
EBONY: You also plan to make a video for “Human Nature.” How is video important to your Rockjazz concept?
ELEW: People used to have rotary phones. And then cell phones come along. We used to have record stores, and then iTunes came along. There are technologies that are part of doing business, today. And having a video is one of them. Rockjazz is the way that I managed to connect with an audience. And video allows me to further connect with my audience.