The Lewis Express had a life way before our label, ATA Records, was printing discs. I think the first rumblings of the band were around 2004 when drummer Sam Hobbs and I, accompanied a very young pianist, Bill Laurence, in one of his degree examinations. My memory is slightly hazy for the material. I think we improvised some swinging jazz and possibly some reggae-influenced stuff, but I do remember that we kicked the doors off the sucker! Bill's examiners did not know what hit them as he was on a classical music degree.
It was a few years after this that The Lewis Express came to be. I was listening to a lot of Soul Jazz stuff and have always loved piano-led bands and in Bill I had finally met someone who could front one. At a young age he was incredible, had such a natural sense of swing and groove and a fierce appetite for performance, loving nothing better than watching a crowd of people dance to his beat.
At that time I shared a house with an incredible record collector, Fraser Hincliffe. You can check out his impeccable taste on his mixcloud page. His choices are so good that when I went to get the link to the site one of his mixes started playing and I immediately switched off the new Lewis Express album that I am trying to get round to writing about and listened to that instead! There is an endless wealth of inspiration to be found in these records so if you haven't checked the link out you probably just don't like music…
Fraser supplied us with an endless amount of amazing 60’s piano music from all genres to fill out set lists. Bill was like a computer, you filled his ears with this stuff and out of his fingers came a mixture of Les McCann, Ray Bryant and Ramsey Lewis - if you haven't twigged already that’s where the “Lewis” part of The Lewis Express” comes from.
There were some great times and some incredible gigs but after a good run it was clear that it was more my thing than it was Bill’s. For a long time that was that for The Lewis Express as it was nigh on impossible to fill the piano stool correctly - until now that is.
My understanding of what is meant by Soul Jazz is that when Jazz was entering the ever-changing ground of the 60’s some players adopted the more solid beat of Soul and RnB whilst retaining the instrumental and improvisational context of modern jazz to move with the times. Basically, jazz with a groovy beat. That’s kind of what the Lewis Express is about. Jazz for the people not just for musicians. Jazz that puts some movement in your hands and feet. Jazz that’s welcoming in its execution.
I think for a lot of musicians this style of music is looked upon as maybe not challenging enough or simplistic. They may be right in some ways; the music isn't rocket science but it’s the execution that can be so out of reach that many are not even aware of it. Each to their own though. For me today, in the field of jazz too much of the music is made by musicians for musicians. There is a heavy emphasis on the technical mastery or the act of improvisation so much so that it becomes impenetrable to most folks. The great jazz educator Barry Harris said something along the lines of “The problem with your jazz is that nobody dances to it”. I am paraphrasing here a bit and if you are interested in digging deeper follow the link to the full video 'Feeling the "and"'. The part of his talk which I find most interesting is near the beginning where he laments the absence of people dancing to jazz these days and how that affects the music that current jazz musicians produce.
While making records like The Lewis Express we are very conscious of what we are giving to the audience or what audience we would like to play to. With the original incarnation of the band we would spend a lot of our time getting people dancing. One night at a party in a first floor flat, which contained a grand piano, we had so many people dancing we could feel the floor bending to the beat of a crammed audience dancing the night away. The main thing that I took away from these experiences is that not everyone can understand the intricacies of improvised music, but most folks understand good rhythm and if you get them on that they’ll be open to the rest.
We spent a lot of time preparing for this album so that the playing language matched the intention of the material. Although we are not setting out to make pastiche records, we are heavily influenced by the styles and sounds of the 60’s. If the musical language steps too far outside of this I start to get a bit twitchy. Reason being is that I believe we are creating a bit of a bubble that we are inviting you into with our music and the moment the playing language steps out of that, the bubble bursts and the integrity of the music is compromised. This can sometimes be challenging for the musicians we are working with as I am often asking them to play a lot less than they would want to or feel represents their ability as players but again the theme is we are not making music for musicians.
I am so grateful when our musicians understand that what we are setting out to achieve may not be their main path musically. If we are singing from the same hymn sheet, then any direction I give in regard to what we are playing doesn’t run the risk of sounding like criticism and the whole process runs smoothly without me frantically looking for the pull cord on my parachute.
By Neil Innes