In 1992 my friend Amanda Monaco played me a track by Kenny Barron’s quintet called “I Wanted to Say.” I didn’t know that the drummer was Victor Lewis, but I knew that it swung hard but elegantly and that whenever he switched between brushes and sticks, the light in the room changed. I also didn’t know that he’d composed the tune, but it haunted me and has done so ever since.
As it turns out, he soon became one of my favorite drummers (certainly on the short list of favorites of his generation) and I’m mega-excited that Amanda and I will get to play with him this Saturday at the QJOG Spring Jazz Festival (and yes, nerd-police, we ARE playing “I Wanted to Say”). Looking at the breadth of his career is fairly overwhelming – the list below omits records I love by Dexter Gordon, John Stubblefield, Larry Willis, J.J. Johnson, Jessica Williams, Eddie Henderson, Stephen Scott and Steve Nelson. Likewise the whole list could have been of his own compositions – as it is, four of the tunes here were composed by Victor, and that doesn’t even include the aforementioned one.
If you can’t make it out on Saturday, enjoy the music on this list. If you can, then you’re in for a treat, as everyone is whenever he plays the drums.
1 ) Kenny Barron: “Big Girls” (from Quickstep)
This tune/performance make the Top 10 of virtually any list of mine where it’s eligible. Victor’s composition is hauntingly gorgeous, the performance is epic (especially John Stubblefield’s saxophone solo) and the rhythm section (also including David Williams on bass) gives a clinic in dynamics and slow-boiling groove. Victor’s role in Kenny Barron’s groups (especially this “classic” quintet) can’t be overstated and it took discipline for me not to make the whole list of their work together.
2 ) Bobby Watson: “Eeeyyess” (from Horizon Reassembled)
Likewise, I could easily make a full list of tunes pairing Victor with saxophonist/composer Bobby Watson, especially with their quintet Horizon (whose recorded output is mostly out of print, a fact as bewildering as it is unfortunate). This irresistible “straight 8th” tune of Victor’s is also the title track of one of his own records from the 1990s.
3 ) Woody Shaw: “Theme for Maxine” (from Rosewood)
You can’t really talk about Victor’s career without bowing to the great Shaw of Newark, and this track (chosen to represent Victor’s great waltz playing) is one of dozens that I could have picked. Are you noticing a trend?
4 ) Victor Lewis: “Hey, It’s Me You’re Talkin’ To” (from Know It Today, Know It Tomorrow)
This is debatably Victor’s best-loved tune as a composer. I first learned it from Kenny Barron’s Other Places, but soon got hip to this great album, Victor’s first as a leader and the first significant recording to feature the young saxophonist Seamus Blake.
5 ) George Cables: “Cheese Cake” (from A Letter to Dexter)
Victor swings like crazy (and gets some nice trading/solo work) on this track from a wonderful tribute album by fellow Dexter Gordon cohorts Cables and Rufus Reid. The Cables-Lewis hookup is documented on many albums and is always delightful.
6 ) Stan Getz (and Chet Baker): “Stablemates” (from The Stockholm Concerts)
This 1983 recording features pianist Jim McNeely, who predated Kenny Barron in Getz’s band (of which Victor was a longtime member). Chet Baker is on much of the album, but on this assertive track Getz is alone on the frontline.
7 ) Victor Lewis: “Another Angel” (from Three Way Conversations)
This album features a series of piano-less trios that demonstrate both Victor’s interactivity and the textural fullness that his drumming provides. This track features the fiery alto saxophone work of Steve Wilson.
8 ) David Sanborn: “Mamacita” (from Sanborn)
Straight-ahead jazz fans: were you aware that Victor can also bring the funk? Consider yourself informed, and check out this mid-1970s Sanborn record for proof.
9 ) Art Farmer: “I’ll Be Around” (from Blame It On My Youth)
This whole album (featuring pianist James Williams) is lovely – Farmer actually sits this one out, though, giving way to his frontline cohort Clifford Jordan. I had to include at least one ballad, and his sensitivity here is a great example.
10 ) James Carter: “Sunset” (from Gardenias for Lady Day)
Here we get to hear Victor work within an elaborate orchestration (which he does with characteristic skill and sensitivity) as well as hearing his deep hook-up with longtime cohort John Hicks on piano.