As well-traveled and widely recorded as alto saxophonist Mark Lewis has been over the past four decades, his new CD "The New York Session" is likely to be the album that helps rectify his current under-the-radar reputation. Recorded last year in Brooklyn with a world-class rhythm section—pianist George Cables, bassist Essiet Essiet, and drummer Victor Lewis—the new disc will be released by Lewis’s Audio Daddio label on January 27. It’s the work of an artist clearly reveling in the company of fellow masters making the most of his tasty compositions.
“There’s so much to savor and admire here,” writes critic Ted Gioia, a self-professed Mark Lewis fan who contributed the CD booklet notes. “Lewis’s musicality, his inventiveness, his humor, his ability to immerse himself in the soundscape of the performance with total emotional commitment these all stand out here in track after track.”
Whether he’s inviting his listeners to a carnival on “Boberto’s Magical World” or waxing philosophical on the introspective “Not As Beautiful As You,” Lewis displays an utterly personal mix of authority, playfulness, and interactive immediacy. He’s at home in the blues, playing with relaxed soul on the strolling, minor key “DL Blues,” and draws on his deep love of African music for several pieces, most obviously on the lilting “Sierra Leone” and the boisterous 12/8 closer “Roll ’Em Joe.”
Legally blind, Lewis hasn’t let his disability slow him down, traveling the world and establishing deep creative bonds wherever he’s landed. But not being able to assess a colleague’s immediate reaction to his music may shape his approach to recording.
“I don’t see well enough to see facial expressions,” Lewis says. “I used simple compositions because I didn’t want to clutter the purity of the sound we were trying to get. I think pieces of music are like places or rooms. You play in those spaces as a musician, in those settings, and they’ll make you into slightly different people doing different things, which I think is good.”
Settling in Seattle, Lewis started performing regularly at Norm Bobrow’s Jazz at the Cirque showcase and quickly found invaluable mentors amongst resident masters. Drummer Otis “Candy” Finch, who’d moved to Seattle after a sterling New York career, recognized Lewis’s budding talent and took him under his wing. He also encouraged him to get out of town, and in 1978 the 20-year-old saxophonist flew to Europe with a one-way ticket, his alto sax, and virtually no contacts.
He ended up making Rotterdam his homebase for the next 14 years, and established himself as a vital force on the international jazz scene as a player, label owner, and producer. Building an extensive network of musical peers amongst Dutch players and American ex-pats (“Johnny Griffin got me my first gig in Europe,” Lewis recalls), he maintained three working Dutch groups.
Lewis’s record company Audio Daddio became one of the era’s essential outlets, releasing recordings by Art Foxall, Vonne Griffin, Al Hood, Art Lande, and David Friesen. The label’s last European recording "The Rotterdam Session" features tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, who brought his ambitious “Presidential Suite” to the studio, and legendary jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones, in one of his last recordings. Lewis also maintained a strong presence back in the States, spending several long stints in the Bay Area in the 1980s. He gained a considerable following with a quartet featuring drum maestro Eddie Moore, pianist Mark Levine, and a brilliant young bassist named Larry Grenadier (the group featured on most of his critically hailed 1988 album "In the Spirit" on Quartet Records).
Now based in Bremerton, a small city west of Seattle on the Puget Sound where he returned to be close to his family, Lewis maintains a busy schedule that includes teaching private students and college clinics. He continues to expand his daunting book of compositions, which number over 1,700. Though he’s recorded more than 20 albums, only a fraction of his compositions have been documented on record, another reason why "The New York Session" is a particularly important release.
The discovery of a master improviser is always thrilling, but finding a player/composer at the peak of his powers is a rare occurrence indeed. Though fully aware of his accomplishments, Lewis sees himself as part of a modern jazz continuum. “I try to approach each composition, each performance, with knowledge and technique from studying the masters who came before and also the innocence of a child,” he says. “I hope it keeps the music authentic and genuine.”