Accessing the legacy

Hot Jazz will get hotter with the music of iconic saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderly played by a stellar ensemble.

January 13, 2012 18:25
Unorthodox rhythms: Victor Lewis

Unorthodox rhythms: Victor Lewis. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Keeping in step with Sonny and Cannonball, the next slot of the current Hot Jazz series features the work of iconic saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley, who plied their trade through the prism of the bebop and hard bop jazz styles. Both played with some of the leaders of the jazz community in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, including the likes of Miles Davis, Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

The band that will present the tribute to the great reedmen includes saxophonist Jesse Davis and drummer Victor Lewis, both from the US, with bassist Gilad Abro and pianist Yonatan Riklis providing local support. The quartet will perform around the country between January 16 and January 21.

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Even though 61-year-old Lewis opted for drums, he has played with many of the leading jazz saxophonist of the last four decades and, in fact, heard quite a lot of sax at home, too. His father was a horn player, and Lewis’s CV to date includes highly fruitful synergies with many titans of the sax, including Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon.

Lewis says that when he was growing up, he listened to quite a lot of Stitt’s work and even had the honor and pleasure of meeting the great man. “Both Stitt and Cannonball had a strong influence on me,” says the drummer, “so it’s great to be coming to Israel to play some of their music.”

Lewis grew up with a well-rounded musical background. “My father played all sorts of instruments, including the tenor saxophone, and the alto and baritone and French horn, and my mother was a classical and jazz piano player. So I grew up with everything from Duke Ellington to Stravinsky to [legendary jazz saxophonist] Lester Young and lots of different things. There was always music going around in my house.”

Lewis actually began taking an active interest in the world of music on the cello at the age of 10 because he was too small at the time for acoustic bass, but he switched to drums by the time he was 12.

“I was in a drum corps when I was a kid. That was a great experience and it kept me out of trouble,” Lewis laughs, adding that it was also a formative experience in several ways. "It gave me a feeling for rhythm and also for teamwork and coordination, not just for playing the drums but also for moving while you’re playing,” he recounts.

There have been marching bands for more than 100 years, but Lewis says that he arrived on that particular scene at an opportune time, which affected more than just the way he pounded the skins.

“That was when a lot of black drum corps were starting to put their own style on marching; they had a sort of swing lean to it. That was not only with the [playing] rhythms but also with the way we marched. We didn’t march in an even way – right, left, right, left. We used to march with the left leg leading and the right leg kind of dragging behind. We had a kind of bob and weaving movement. It was almost like a dance.”

That ability to adapt to unorthodox rhythms stood Lewis in good stead many years later when he teamed up with Dexter Gordon. “I learned a lot from Dexter,” he recalls. “I started playing with him more as a swing musician rather than as a post-bebop player. When I figured that out, I moved to another level because Dexter responded.”

There was also a learning curve to be negotiated during his time with Getz. “Stan wanted the music to be driving but not quite as loud. When I talk about the music we made with Stan, I use the cooking term ‘to simmer.’ You know, it’s like everything is hot and just on the edge of boiling. Stan used to like to have that simmering intensity.”

Lewis also had the good fortune to work with some of the older guys, including one of the founding fathers of modern jazz, Max Roach, and Philly Joe Jones, who kept time for Miles Davis in the 1950s.

“Yes, that sort of gave me a link to some of the older generations of jazz players. It’s about keeping the legacy alive, the legacy that goes down through the generations. But it was never about paying tribute to the history of jazz. You had to know about the legacy, but you always had to bring something of your own and your own generation,” Lewis adds. “All those older guys had progressive minds.”

Compared with the younger crowd, now Lewis is one of the “older guys” and says he enjoys working with musicians with less experience. “They keep me on my toes,” he notes. “They know it all. In my generation if you wanted to hear someone’s playing, you had to either go to a gig or find their records. We had to jump in a car and go and find a record store. But now, in the age of the Internet, these young guys have the edge because they can access all that stuff so easily. All they have to do is to go to YouTube or something like that. They have the edge because they can access the legacy.”

Lewis accessed the “legacy” of the likes of Stitt and Adderley personally on the bandstand when he was starting out, and that should come through loud and clear with Davis, Riklis and Abro next week.

The quartet will perform at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem on January 16 at 9 p.m; Zappa Club in Herzliya on January 17 at 8:15 p.m; Einan Hall in Modi’in on January 18 at 9 p.m; Tel Aviv Museum of Art on January 19 and 20 at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., respectively; and Abba Hushi House in Haifa on January 21 at 9 p.m.

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