'Rockjazz' musician ELEW infuses energy in piano performances

Posted: March 19, 2012

YOU AIN'T heard nothing like "rockjazz" musician ELEW - the torrent of power and passion kicking out the jams tonight for the "Live from Loews" (hotel) monthly concert series. The press release bills it as an "intimate live performance." Don't they know what they're really getting here?

Standing/dancing at his Yamaha piano, with legs fanned out like a sumo wrestler and arms encrusted with metallic "vambrace" armor, the man truly attacks his keyboard.

The left hand pounds bass lines with such fervor you'll never notice there's no drummer. His right hand soars and scorches like a rocking electric guitarist. And while there are some mainstream jazz originals and covers mixed into his sets, more often times ELEW is serving up rockin' tunes you know and love from Coldplay, the Rolling Stones, U2, the Cranberries and Michael Jackson "that get people up on their feet, dancing and singing like it's karaoke night," he shared with delight. Oh, and when ELEW launches into a heavy-metal number, "there's even some headbanging," he swore.

This is not what mom Carol D. Lewis - a music teacher at Lower Camden County Regional High School - originally planned for her son Eric. She drove him over the bridge to study classical and jazz piano at Settlement Music School in Queen Village, where Joey DeFrancesco and Christian McBride were classmates "but I never got to hang with them, because mom was always around and dragging me home to practice."

All that diligence did earn the guy a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music, where Lewis graduated with honors. Then he toured with some of the jazz world's greats, including Cassandra Wilson, Elvin Jones and Wynton Marsalis. And in 1999, Lewis even won the Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition.

But when all that still didn't land him a recording deal, Lewis "went through panic attacks and depression," decided the jazz world wasn't really his best friend and started looking elsewhere for solace and salvation.

"I bought my first rock record at 30 - Linkin Park's 'Meteora' - and really connected with a song called 'Somewhere I Belong,' " said the now 38-year-old performer. "That's when my mind opened up. I thought, 'Wow. I can do this.' "

Lewis also listened hard to other jazz guys going in a crossover direction, such as The Bad Plus and Brad Mehldau, and decided "there were holes in their approach. They were turning rock songs into waltzes. It was all too polite. No one was capturing the primal blunt force of the rock, because most of these guys lack the cross-training to really wield these tunes."

The stylist could take some inspiration from jazz legend Errol Garner, "who covered a lot of pop tunes in his day, with a guitarlike riffing approach on the keyboard," and with the rumbling, pungent pianistics of McCoy Tyner, whom Lewis connected to aesthetically through that road work with Elvin Jones (Tyner's longtime drummer).

But he also took inspiration from "a bunch of marketing textbooks and life strategies like 'The Art of War,' " which taught him about branding (ergo the name change to ELEW and unique stage demeanor) and the eternal quest to give your all. "I'm known for my energy, arrogance, aggression, force and bravura," he reeled off.

Critics have been "confused and conflicted" by all this stuff, now bottled on two volumes of "ELEW Rockjazz" on his own Ninjazz label. But not so the public, ELEW insisted.

Opening a big bunch of shows for Josh Groban last year, facing 16,000 people a night, was no big deal for the soloing instrumentalist with his "arena-weight" (his words) sound.

And in that (ahem) "intimate" show tonight, we should expect "two to three hours of intense music that'll leave me drenched and everyone happy," promised the pianist.

Loews Philadelphia Hotel, SoleFood Restaurant and Lounge, 1200 Market St., 8 tonight (come early for bites and cocktails), no cover or minimum, dinner reservations 215-231-7000, loewshotels.com/Philadelphia.

Contact Jonathan Takiff at 215-854-5960 or takiffj@phillynews.com.

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