A few months ago for Essence magazine, I talked to piano virtuoso Eric Lewis about the challenge of attracting black audiences to “rockjazz,” the unique fusion music he now plays under the stage name ELEW. Rather than performing and composing traditional jazz, he claims he’s found his niche banging the keys in forceful covers of classic and arena rock songs such as Evanescence’s “Going Under,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Coldplay’s “Clocks.” His album Rockjazz Vol. 1 came out earlier this year.
But in jazz circles, ELEW is no stranger to a negative review. Ben Ratliff of the NY Times described a show last year as “a grandiose and weirdly facile kind of catharsis, a performance that vaulted over jazz, co-opted rock and ended up somewhere in the vicinity of Elton John.” Ouch.
But ELEW is undeterred. He counts Michelle Obama, and Hollywood A-listers like Gerard Butler and Ben Foster as fans. (Try to catch him live to decide for yourself. He performs on Dec. 20 at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency in NY. Cop tickets here.)
And he’s confident black audiences will find and appreciate him in due time. Read some of the interview outtakes to hear him tell it:
“When black people see me with a piano and I’m not doing it in a church way, and I’m not doing it in the RZA way, I’m doing it the hard way…I’m doing that hard stuff that kind of stuff that you don’t get famous as a black person doing unless you’re a Michael Jordan at it, or let me put it better, like what’s the brain surgeon’s name…there’s a top neurosurgeon named Dr. Keith Black, then there’s Ben Carson down in Maryland at the big medical center down there. The Keith Blacks and the Ben Carsons get respect. Black people know that you don’t get respect in the medical field in those extremely technical, high pressure fields unless you’re the real deal. Like a Colin Powell.
“So me playing the piano for black people the way I do it is the same thing being around a Colin Powell, Ben Carson, or Keith Black. Would you try to party with those guys? Well, you don’t really look at them like that. You’re not really attracted to them in that way. But as a black person dealing with stereotypes and racial profiling, you’re glad that they’re there cause it gives you something to feel good about. And you don’t care that they might be a little boring to you, you’ll still take them because it takes on a whole different kind of significance. In America, you kinda want to take what you can get, try to feel comfortable, try to feel like home. That’s where I fall in, that’s how you can look at me—the Colin Powell of piano.”