Victor Lewis

I just contributed to the fundraiser for the great drummer Victor Lewis, who is “suffering from a neurological issue that has lost him the use of his legs…We are hoping to see a recovery but it may take as long as one year.”

Lewis can play any genre of music with style and grace. More or less off the top my head, a few tracks and albums that made an impression over the years:

The hook-up with Kenny Barron is very strong. Barron is one of the most consistent workers in the history of the music, by definition all of his records are good, but Live at Fat Tuesdays has my vote as one of Barron’s very best, a scorching 1988 session with Eddie Henderson, John Stubblefield, Cecil McBee, and Victor Lewis. The opening “There Is No Greater Love” is a perfect example of the way this group of peers saw the tradition. Lewis is creative, interactive and impossibly swinging. I particularly dig Stubblefield’s gloss on a kind of Wayne Shorter smear. Later on that night, the uptempo “Lunacy” is pure modal burn, with fabulous Lewis throughout including a mesmerizing drum solo. 

Lewis mastered this forthright style when powering various Woody Shaw groups in the ‘70s. Shaw’s Stepping Stones at the Village Vanguard is exactly a decade earlier than Barron at Fat Tuesdays and features long workouts on “Solar,” “Green Dolphin Street,” and several beautiful Shaw originals. New York City! One wonders just how many nights Lewis has lit up a Manhattan bandstand during the last 45 years…

Barron, Rufus Reid, and Lewis made a solid trio album, The Moment. Of particular note in terms of a drum performance is a cover of Sting’s “Fragile,” where Lewis gives a serious glow of pop elegance to a jazz trio. This is not easy to do! Most straight ahead masters are not that interested in “rock” or “pop” drumming but Victor Lewis loves it all. Indeed, Lewis played a lot of great eighth note beats for Carla Bley, including at least one famous track, “Lawns” from Sextet, where Lewis’s spare backbeat becomes the still center of a long rumination by Larry Willis. (Lewis gave me a nice quote about Bley for my article at the New Yorker Culture Desk.)

Lewis is less known as an avant-gardist, but he’s dealing in the style on Oliver Lake’s early album Heavy Spirits, check out the fractured groove of “Owshet.” The record I know better is Current Set by Mark Helias. This wonderful 1987 date collects an unlikely group of musicians: Tim Berne, Herb Robertson, Greg Osby, Robin Eubanks, even Naná Vasconcelos on one track. Helias is a truly gifted composer for ensemble, penning memorable tunes and vibrant counterpoint. Lewis is right in there, stoking the fires and nailing every corner of the difficult arrangements. Helias has put this classic album on his Bandcamp page, a worthy purchase indeed. 

Another great composer associated with Lewis is George Cables. The George Cables Songbook is a relatively recent success (2016) with important participation by vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles. Lewis supplies beats from swing to funk to everything else. A bit earlier, Lewis joins Cables and Rufus Reid for the tribute disc Letter to Dexter. Try “Cheesecake” for the challenging “top of the middle” swing ride cymbal beat as well as it can be done. 

Lewis didn’t record that much with Dexter Gordon (usually the great Eddie Gladden was there with Cables and Reid) except for the big band LP Sophisticated Giant, a good example of flawless modern jazz drumming in a large ensemble context. I’ve never been quite convinced that Sophisticated Giant was a truly classic record, though…a better contender for “old school tenor legend can still record a spectacular disc in the studio” is Stan Getz’s Voyage (1986) with Kenny Barron, George Mraz, and Victor Lewis. Red Sullivan pulled my coat to this LP relatively recently. There’s definitely a glow around Voyage that puts it in the pantheon, especially on the ballads, where Lewis’s brushwork whispers the time in a sensuous manner.

We are back to Kenny Barron again (“Voyage” is even a Barron tune), a reminder that Barron and Lewis recorded “Dexterity” duo on What If? This fierce elaboration of a Charlie Parker theme is must-hear for fans of either the drummer or the pianist. 

Further listening includes music with Bobby Hutcherson, Charles McPherson, J.J. Johnson, Art Farmer, Cedar Walton (The Composer is a great album!) and many others including Lewis’s own stellar bands. I need to know Lewis’s records as a leader better but right now I’m checking out Three Way Conversations, a charismatic 1996 session with Terrell Stafford, Seamus Blake, and Steve Wilson interacting with Lewis and Ed Howard. With no piano in the mix, Lewis’s drums sit front and center. Lewis is also a valued composer: the charming modal steeplechase “Hey, It’s Me You’re Talkin’ To” appears on several non-Lewis albums including Mark Turner’s first Warner Bros. disc.

The whole jazz community loves Victor Lewis and prays for a speedy recovery.