Eric Lewis is a hands-on artist. He uses music to take the audience on a journey through RockJazz, a musical technique he created that involves strumming and slapping on a piano's strings as if it were a guitar and a drum rolled into one. He does all this while he's actually playing popular rock songs, which have been soaked in the elicit temperament of Jazz. During Art Basel weekend, Lewis, who is known as ELEW on stage, performed at the Delano Hotel, Soho Beach House, and at a few nightclubs. Where ELEW played crowds followed. Onlookers danced – even jumped up and down – as he manipulated the ambiance with the mastery of a DJ. However, since he wasn't a traditional artist armed with a paintbrush, he remained off the Basel-guide radar. His performances were a part of the second-annual Pop Up Pianos Miami, which encourages the support of local music and art programs.
Miami.com caught up with ELEW hours before his final performance. We learned more about the man behind the piano and also what it was like to record in Miami for Lil Wayne's upcoming album.
You bring just as much energy to the piano that a rockstar brings to the stage. I mean, if you could run around stage with the grand piano strapped to you somehow, I feel like you would.
I'd be doing it. (Smiles)
You seem so comfortable, at home even, with the piano. How much of what you do is for show and how much is just you having a moment with the music?
I put myself into a position where I'm forced to be sincere and authentic. When I put myself into that stance, right away, I'm activated and I'm at work. Essentially, the whole effort of trying to share with the audience what it is I like about this song; how I felt when I heard it for the first time; how I feel when I hear it; what it makes me want to do... that becomes the goal.
During your career you've had highs and lows. In '98, your career hit rock bottom when one of your solo Jazz albums flopped. Then, the following year, you bounced back, and at age 26, received the Thelonius Monk award. What did you learn from that failure?
That was humiliating. What it did was really bruise my excitement. I had to watch that thing I put my energy and heart into get abused and get sold short. So then after that, I learned that I had to avoid getting too excited about stuff until it's a done deal.
Aren't you excited about RockJazz?
It's just like the whole rule, 'Don't get high on your own supply.' That's rule number two. Most people don't remember rule number one.
What's rule number one?
Rule number one is, 'Never underestimate the other guy's greed.' And that's what happened. I failed to estimate the other guy's greed. I got excited past the point where it was healthy for me. Now, when I do business, I always leave a little room in my excitement, and my future vision, for the other guy's greed.
How did working with Wynton Marsalis influence the way you approach music and the industry?
I learned a lot from being around him. Watching him deal with the mayor of a city and the president of a foreign country, a mogul, a billionaire, seeing how he handled these things. Even with his access to all that, he never ever displayed any type of indulgence that would compete with his work. So that was interesting and informative to be around.
You're keenly aware of a business side of music and details of the music industry. Who taught you to keep the eye on the music and eye on the business?
Wynton did a poor job preparing me for the biz. He did a good job preparing me for being a popular artist. Business and all that stuff though I got gambling with chess hustlers – a lot of them were ex criminals.
What? You're saying you learned about the business of music through chess hustlers?
Ok. Go ahead and explain, please.
What happened was that everyone was saying I sounded great. I myself knew there were still aspects that were bugging me. In chess, it forced me to be objective about myself, especially when I had these losses and I was losing money. That lesson, 'you're coming up short. You understand? And I don't care. Come up with this here.' That's music. Because, when I have to take care of the audience, it's very direct. And that's RockJazz.
How does RockJazz really distinguish from Jazz?
In regular Jazz, it's gotten to the point where it's so subjective you can have the hubris to give the audience a sense of, 'I'm gonna play what I want to play.' RockJazz comes from a place where it's like 'I hear you. I know what thrills you. You want to feel the way Lady Gaga makes you feel? The way Kanye makes you feel? That high arena stuff? Well, I accept that challenge.' This RockJazz technique is born from an environment that's unforgiving. It's born from the chess board, the debt board. It's like 'come up with it.' It's direct and blunt.
How then do you know if you're being led by trends or being true to yourself?
Human joy is ancient and persists.
Human joy is not very loyal to one type of music.
Is your goal to be around forever?
The thing about it is that it is a technique. If one was to write down what I was playing and cross reference it with a Beethoven or a Chopin (and eventually they will) the colors that I'm blending is part of the literature. I'm expanding the literature. I'm delivering a method. The technique takes the native power of the piano and warps it in such a way, and harnesses it in such a way, that people are getting the same buzz from a rock show.
You recently recorded with Lil Wayne. What was it like recording with him?
It verified for me that rap has all the qualities that made jazz what jazz was once upon a time. When I was in the studio with him, just hearing to him talk reminded me of listening to Miles Davis talk. When we recorded we didn't use a click track, we recorded like jazz musicians record, without a click track. It was like being at a jazz session. It felt like I was in a real jazz session, like when I was recording with Wynton and all that. The experience was surprisingly native to me.
What's next for ELEW?
Very possibly I'm going to be signed to a real major pop label, which would be the ultimate coo. I couldn't get a jazz record deal, but I may actually get a pop deal, which means that I would have the pop dollars, real global impact and all that.
And that label is?
I can't say... I also just got attached to a movie (that's probably going to be led by Terence Howard) to do the score. Eventually Weezy's record is going to come out. He's going to want to do a video with me. I'm going to be doing more stuff with the Morgans Hotel Group launching the Mondrian in Marrakech and London, and stuff like that. RockJazz Volume three is in the cooker. I'm going to be able to make it pretty fast. It's getting hot. It's about to get sexy.
Eric Lewis aka ELEW