Pianist Elew wows Montreux after White House gig

MONTREUX, Switzerland (Reuters Life!) - Eric Lewis, the hot American pianist who recently played for U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, swept Montreux fans off their feet with a hard-hitting “rock-jazz” instrumental set.

Known as “Elew,” the 36-year-old from New Jersey and his band gave an electrifying one-hour show on Monday night which one admirer called a blend of Thelonius Monk and Jimi Hendrix.

Tracks ranged from “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, “Clocks” by Coldplay, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic “Sweet Home Alabama” spliced with the Charlie Brown cartoon theme song.

“We hope you like what we do -- rock-jazz. We’re here to rock some jazz and jazz some rock,” Elew told fans at the sold-out Miles Davis Hall.

He opened for the bassist trio known as SMV (Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten) and then showed up at 2 a.m. for a jam session at the underground Montreux Jazz Cafe.

Elew -- who played standing without a piano bench or sheet music -- says he doesn’t even look at the keys so that he can concentrate on the emotions. He pounds on the keys, occasionally bending over to pluck the strings directly.

“I have to focus like an athlete, a boxer, a military person,” the African-American said before the show.

“A lot of what I am doing is high energy, using techniques which are a lot different than typical pianists who sit down with their hands quiet and use a paint-brush movement,” he said. “I don’t care if I break keys or whatever.”

Elew won the prestigious Thelonius Monk International Piano Competition in 1996 at age 23. He went on to play with Wynton Marsalis whom he recalled as a “tough teacher.”

“It felt good to connect myself with Wynton. He was of the same race and I saw that he wore beautiful suits and conducted himself in a very honorable way,” he said. “So if taxis wouldn’t stop for me in New York because they were thinking I was going to rob them, at least on the bandstand I felt proud rather than worrying that I was scaring people.”

He joined performers playing for the Obamas at an evening of music and poetry in mid-May.

Claude Nobs, the founder of the Swiss jazz festival now in its 43rd year, discovered Elew in New York. “I was completely subjugated,” he told the crowd on Monday.

“Claude only heard me one time in Harlem and had me come here. I’m going to play my heart out for you because I appreciate that a lot,” Elew said.

In “Here (In Your Arms)” by the group Hellogoodbye, his drummer Kevin Cerovich did a solo first on trombone and then continued on the trombone while drumming with his right hand.

“I was blown away. It was between Thelonius Monk and Jimi Hendrix,” said Tony Lyon, an American living in Zurich. “I would have liked a longer set.”

Tony Roberson, a visitor from Seattle, Washington, said: “I liked ‘Clocks’ the best, it was very emotional. A beautiful melody that he did so well from start to finish.”

Editing by Paul Casciato