When he recorded Evolution II, Lewis had long since achieved the accomplishments that would define his impact on jazz. In their time, I think Lewis and his Modern Jazz Quartet were second only to Duke Ellington in terms of developing and elevating the form. Putting improvisation side-by-side with time honored styles of classical art music, they elevated jazz to dizzying new heights. But even saying as much is unfair for this man. That’s why I scratch my head and marvel, open my ears and let the piano fill them with knowledge. Here, Lewis’ technique is still surprising, oscillating from tightly arranged structures to wild extemporization. Whether he’s tinkling a single-note solo or chording a double-hander that stretches three blocks, it’s bliss. He imbues the music with a heavy swing that permeates all, big rhythm interpolating a gospel of harmony for the masses.
As always, the writing is as erudite as it is accessible. Throughout the proceedings, Lewis considers pieces from the MJQ back catalog in three continua: a gleaning from the past, the import of our present day, and the dictates of his present moment. To a casual listener it’s downright enjoyable. But to a canny fan with good ears, it does something more, framing Lewis in the dramatic sweep of his own legacy, a four decade career in the world of jazz. Evolution II is a past-proof that continues to build relevance upon yesterday’s revolution. As a CD in print from the year 2000, it parlays that legacy to a whole new generation of people. Back… and forth. Talk about swing!
The music shrugs at commercial pigeonholes like “pop,” “classical,” or “jazz” by exposing commonalities in the ineffable and truly nameless thing that we call “music.” As always, it points in a new direction. Maybe a little like Paul Desmond, an understated John Lewis touch in the melody might miss you the first time, then devastate you upon a second listen. He’s got stuff hidden all over the place. Like Ahmad Jamal, he understood the penetrating effects of silence and balance on the keyboard, pounding when it wanted, but quiet when noise would have spoiled. Like Mingus, the chordal depth in his composition allows for endless reimagining, regardless of the decade. Evolution II’s meandering stroll down memory lane seeks unexplored areas of familiar paths. Whether the march from “Trieste,” for instance, “Winter Tale” or the unmistakable strains of “Django” from the MJQ slab of the same name, this effort proves that without Milt Jackson, another MJQ was impossible, but the mission would continue. Kudos to Lewis Nash, whose tastefully complex, articulate and just brilliant drumming puts every piece in place.
‘Nuff said, now go and listen! This title can be found in the library’s North Wing Basement, filed under Jazz Lewis 3132.