Interview with Lilli Lewis: The fundamental precipitate, of intellect and soul: Video

Jazz interview with jazz pianist and vocalist Lilli Lewis. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music? 

Lilli Lewis: – I grew up in Athens, Georgia which was a small college town in the deep south with a pretty wide cross section of influences. To me it seemed to be equal parts football Americana culture meets hipster counter-culture, and I was an anomaly in both realms. I was a bit of an alien, but I seemed to take to music right away. In my father’s church, I would go up to the piano after every service and just play one note at a time very slowly as if I was trying to memorize the language of each one. I was three years old when my six year old sister started taking piano lessons, and I was able to teach myself to play by ear everything she was being taught in school. As soon as we had a piano in the home it became my best friend. It was hard to get me to stop playing, and even though I was a sickly kid who missed a lot of school, I admit that there were times that I would fake illness just so that I could stay home and hang out with my big wooden friend.

That didn’t change when I left home to attend a New England boarding school when I was thirteen. I chose the school not or its reputation but for its pianos! There, my love for music blossomed into a full on obsession with chamber music and choral music and early music – pretty much anything I could get my hands on. They sometimes hosted concerts four out of seven nights of the week, and I was known to attend them all!

I don’t think any particular genre ever clung to me. I was mesmerized by mystery, and I found it in everything from Gesualdo to John Coltrane.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound? What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm? 

LL: – When I started out, I was mostly a classical composer processing great deal of grief. Having endured a rather difficult childhood, when I found myself a young adult trying to reconcile life in the shadow of my father’s death, I started to write music I had no real cultural context for. It was in all the musical languages that lived in my head, and my daily practice was to try to let the music emerge without prejudice or presumption… Since I didn’t know what it was, my primary job was to allow it to show me what it was trying to be.

That has been a lifelong process.

I moved to Boston in my early 20’s because I had become aware of a scene of women singer/songwriters who seemed like they were thriving as fully expressed beings. That’s all I wanted at the time. I went to every concert and open mic I could afford to attend, usually too shy to perform but I studied and practiced during this time.

My daily practice with the music at the time was to sing each song, reaching as deep into my inner recesses as I could find access to, and sing the simplest songs I knew until they brought me personally to tears. I used this season to explore my inner landscape. As a soloist, I allowed my body to show me what rhythm meant, and often it showed me the rhythms of a classical singer with not much sense of time, only the breath, because the breath doesn’t lie!

It wasn’t until I moved to Louisiana and got a chance to play with a good number of rhythmic masters that my body started to show me new approaches to rhythm, and to this day, I am still a novice in this realm, depending heavily on the ictus of my ensemble to help “train me up.”

JBN: – Can you tell us more about your influences and how your musical identity has developed over the years? 

LL: – My formal training was in classical piano and voice, and my deepest affinity was for turn of the century French composers like Gabriel Faure and others in his lineage. So my sound was deeply influenced by the color palette of those composers, and was also defined by a round sense of touch that seemed to come naturally to my approach to German “Romantic” composers like Brahms and Schumann, even late Beethoven.

Rhythmically, I always felt drawn to the syncopations found in church and at block parties in the neighborhood in that my body always wanted to dance…And while this worked against me in my approach to Mozart, it worked very much in my favor as I started writing my own music for my own body, which eventually evolved into a “jazz-like” sound. In that realm, I found myself deeply drawn to pianists like McCoy Tyner, where the modal tonal palette was rich enough to fill out the sound of the ensemble without a ton of emphasis on “lead” playing in the right hand, or Dave Brubek where I found inspiration in the effortless interplay of meter.

This approach helped to get me “grounded in time” in a way that my experience as a classical pianist often worked against. By this I mean, in classical piano, the skill of borrowing time from one gesture to give to another created drama and line, whereas in other idioms like jazz, time was more of a tightrope that your limbs had to bend around in order to keep moving, but loss of integrity could lead to a pretty dramatic “Splatt!” I never wanted to surrender the expressiveness of the “rubato” style approach, but the deep integrity of the pocket was equally appealing.

This became particularly clear when I moved to the magical musical city that is New Orleans where rhythm is KING. The first time I sat in on an informal session with sousaphone master Kirk Joseph, I found my hips unable to settle as the rocked back and forth effortlessly in time with his equal parts virtuosic and grounded groove. My approach to the keyboard became more percussive and polyrhythmic, letting the legato surrender to the trancelike state made available by groove driven music as opposed to a “line” or “tonality” driven approach.

In integrating all of this with what my body also preferred as a vocalist, I eventually found my style leaned most toward “economy.” It was as if I wanted each note to say what it meant and mean what it said, and if I accomplished that, I would never need to use too many words to get across the emotional intention of the music.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing? 

LL: – I feel like my music reflects definition of “disparate influences” when it comes to musical language, but the truth is, my focus as a musician and even as a human is to simply do my best at all times to be myself. I have been afforded the great privilege of having always been an outsider: a southerner educated in the north, a poor person among the privileged, and in nearly every respect, a minority among the masses.

To this end, were I ever to attempt at taking on another’s lens on what I or my music was supposed to be, any sense of what others might have to say about what would or could make me more acceptable could very easily render me paralyzed and resentful. 

I use my music to find out what I think about things, to discover who I am and what I want to offer my world. I take inspiration from everywhere and simply discard that which does not inspire. For others who fit in more easily, I believe such an approach would take a great deal of courage. For me who has always been an outsider, it is just an expression of my own unique brand of privilege.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina? 

LL: – I really like to over prepare so that the performances can be exercises in surrender. I meditate a great deal on what transmission might be possible for each performance, and I try to make myself completely available to that. If I have not over prepared, then I won’t be available to the spontaneous moments that could in fact carry the most information when it comes to higher purpose.

So I make sure the music is rehearsed to the point of afterthought, so that all of my bandwidth can be in service to remaining in the moment…. That and I tend to take a double shot of B Vitamins before each performance!

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul? 

LL: – Music is the embodiment, perhaps even the fundamental precipitate, of intellect and soul. Music is the language of intellect contending with its reason. Music is the closest thing proximity to the soul in physical form. Music is the soul using intellect to express itself.

Since I believe music is more than just the soundwaves that greet our ears as organizes sound, but rather the healing and evolution-driving quantum coherence that is generated by the process of intoning that sound, I’m not sure music happens without the presence of both intellect and soul. Musical expression that’s all intellect and no soul is merely an exercise while all soul and no intellect yields amorphous chaos, not coherence. In music, intellect and soul are two sides of the same coin.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want? 

LL: – Relationship is a two way street, and any two things that connect are in relationship with one another. In a performance, the primary relationship is between the audience and the performer, but as in any relationship, there must be give and take. 

I think the performer is served best by giving of themselves through bringing their truth, their vision, their heart, their love, and their best intentions for humanity to the table. They must give up their time, their clinging to approval, privacy and propriety. They must give up their fears in order to show the audience what it looks like to be free. 

I think the audience is served best by giving of themselves through bringing their patience, their trust, their suspension of disbelief, their generosity and their sense of presence and enthusiasm to the table. They must give up their expectations, their comfort zone, their clinging to the familiar in order to be freed. 

The relationship that is most rewarding involves a great deal of vulnerability on both sides, and that’s not easy to come by. Both sides must be generous and vulnerable to each other, while still retaining a sense of self. They must both give and take at the same time. Be the gateway through the mind, the heart, the gut or the loins, it’s the performer’s responsibility to invite the audience into that vulnerable intimacy, whether they want it or not! But while the performer is busy jumping off cliffs trying to prove that it is indeed possible to defy gravity, it is the audience’s responsibility to keep performer flying.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Do not have memories?

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old? 

LL: – Maybe we could start by not calling them standards anymore. Maybe we should call them magic or miracles. That would be a more accurate description of the combination of lyric melody and harmonic language found in those songs. The word “standard” implies “common practice” and what passes for common practice these days falls way short of the density of craft found in the average “Standard.” 

The ”Standards” were often written by songwriters who were not necessarily instrumental virtuosos…and even when they were virtuosos, when they went to write the song, I doubt they were usually thinking “I’m going to write some jazz!” They were more likely thinking “I have something to express that feels timeless and worth sharing,” so the expressed it with a degree of eloquence and nuance that made other people feel like it didn’t just belong to that writer but to all of us, so people felt compelled to offer their take on the tunes. These days, the tunes seem to belong to the artist more than to the community of interpreters. Maybe we could get more young people involved with the process / aesthetic / philosophy of jazz by inviting them to consider “interpreting” the songs that they experience as standard today, rather than “covering” them / re-creating them. Invite them into the process of deconstruction, and when they learn how to do that, maybe they’ll easily get bored with deconstructing three chord changes with two note melodies and look for denser material to deconstruct. 

One can dream, right?

JBN: – What are your thoughts on the state of jazz music today and the direction the genre is currently being taken on? 

LL: – This is a difficult question to answer because not only has jazz grown in every direction under the sun, but it’s still unclear to me what we can say is jazz…indeed, in many cases one man’s jazz is another man’s folk music! 

I think I fear the museumification of jazz. I think jazz was potent when it was being born because it was relevant “to the people,” and yet over time, it seems there arose gatekeepers who got to say what was and wasn’t jazz, and those gatekeepers were often far removed from the source material that birthed the genre to begin with.

Jazz was not born a genre for elitists, and if it gets exclusively claimed by elitists, then the genre will lose its ability to feed “the people” it was born to serve. We must be mindful not to choke it out but to let it breathe. It is a genre that tore down walls by combining influences and delivering with a degree of fortitude and potency that could not be denied. We could stand to acknowledge artists that do this now and invite those creative minds into the canon of the jazz aesthetic. That might allow the genre to continue to be the wild, dangerous, confronting and liberating beast it was born to be!

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be? 

LL: – I would bring back melody. I know to listen to popular music these days one might get the impression that melody is a gauche, passe pursuit. Some might say all the melodies have been written. I say “the write the again!” As a singer and as a listener, I love the emotional colors that can be found in an unexpected interval or melodic inflection. Melodies make our feelings dance. Bring back the melody!!! 

JBN: – What are you listening to, reading and/or watching these days? 

LL: – I’m listening to the rain. I’m reading and watching internet drivel. I’m in the process of emptying out my brain to see what new things might fall in!

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

LL: – In recent years, the message that most of us are all sensitive beings fielding a great deal of grief has come to me in full resolution. With that in mind, I think I try to imbue my music with a soothing beauty, something that reminds folks that they are not alone, that it is really not just ok but a heroic deed to go on living, doing the best you can while attempting to be decent with the people around you. I think alongside that beauty, I try to embed a wake up call to those spirits who might be sleeping. I wish to say to them, “Please, wake up. It is time to go to work. There is so much to be done if we are going to survive. It is time to do the arduous work of growing up. Let us be gentle. Let us be fierce. Let us be kind. Let us choose resolve over aggression. Let us choose to see the other as ourselves. Let their being come into full resolution. Let us not be a wild kingdom, but a sane one. Let us do the work. Wake up and do your work.”

It’s a lot to ask of folks who are grieving, and we are all grieving.

JBN: – As a nod to Pannonica, if you had three wishes, what would they be? Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go? 

LL: – I’ll use my three wishes to go to three time/places. I doubt these responses will be novel: 

I would love to go to turn of the 20th century Paris to see if I can myself from the life I must have lived there to determine why that time and place feel so familiar to me. 

I would love to spend some time revisiting my child self and whisper in my own ear at random intervals not to worry because everything was going to turn out just fine. 

If there is a civilized society of any organic species resembling humans on the planet 1,000 years from now, I would love to go there and see first hand how we survived. I’d love to ask the keepers of the history there what the most difficult decision and transition for the global community had been, and ask the ordinary folk what they’re families told them was the most difficult time for humanity had been like. I’d love to know what the great eu-catastrophe had been, and how we overcame it.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

LL: – What is the most rewarding aspect of the work you do?

JBN: – The intellect!!!

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

LL: – I’m not sure I understand this question. What am I harnessing?

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Lilli Lewis | C-U FOLK AND ROOTS FESTIVAL

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