Jazz pianist Eric Lewis’s story is the biggest scandal I’ve heard of in the record business. It may be the reason why young artists think record labels are irrelevant.
At 36, this incredible talent cannot get a decent contract from a record label. So he’s decided to go it alone.
It’s not like Lewis is unknown. For one thing, I met him last night at the premiere of “The Messenger” because co-stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster are big fans. Lewis counts among his followers seemingly dozens of celebrities. It’s not like he’s lacking for famous endorsements. He’s a favorite at private parties, playing for the likes of Patricia Arquette and husband Thomas Jane in Hollywood for their friends.
This past spring, he played at the White House for the Obamas. Last summer he was the featured guest in Italy at the Ischia Music and Film Festival where he got to play the Police song, “Murder By Numbers,” with Sting.
You’d think with these events on his resume, Eric Lewis would be signed, sealed and delivered to a major record label. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, he’s also paid his dues, touring with Wynton Marsalis, Clark Terry, Betty Carter, Donald Byrd, Ornette Coleman, Elvin Jones and Cassandra Wilson. In 1996, at age 23, he won the Thelonious Monk Piano competition. He’s been a member of the Lincoln Center Orchestra.
It just doesn’t seem to be enough.
Tonight at 11pm Lewis is doing a show on the Lower East Side at Pianos on Ludlow Street. He should be playing the Blue Note, and maybe recording for Blue Note, or Verve or Nonsuch. Instead, he’s getting ready to put out his own record on his own label, covering pop standards like Coldplay’s “Clocks” and the Killers‘ “Mr. Brightside.”
Somehow, the fact that Lewis plays “covers” makes record companies uneasy. This is strange: Coltrane made his reputation doing just that. For example his version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” remains his most popular recording.
And cover songs are what make music publishers’ cash registers hum. Most of rap and hop hop is “cover” stuff and not original. You’d think one of the labels would get that. Until they do, though, we’ll have to keep up with Eric Lewis on facebook and elsewhere on the web, and at his Pianos gig tonight.
Oh yes, what about “The Messenger”: this extraordinary little film arrives on Friday from the very small Oscilloscope Films, owned by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch. It could very well be the “Frozen River” of 2009. There are award worthy performances in there from the two leads as well as Steve Buscemi and Samantha Morton. “The Messenger” delivers! (Sorry ‘ I couldn’t help it!) Ben Foster, who’s now 29 years old believe it or not, has been in movies for fifteen years. He said of his role as a U.S. Army Casualty Notification Officer’who brings bad news to a war widow: “It’s my first man role.” His days as a boy actor are over. Look out.