Tim: Who are some of the tenor players you dug when you were young, growing up in Philly?
Lew: I started playing the saxophone when I was 15, and the first person I liked was Al Cohn. For some reason a lot of players in Philly dug him.
Tim: Sure. Al Steele, John Bonnie, Buddy Savitt – those guys in Philly must have loved what Al played!
Lew: Yeah, it's great you know all those people – Frank Tiberi, too.
Tim: I never heard Buddy Savitt, though I heard Al and John a few times. And Frank Tiberi has got a harmonic conception that draws from Trane as well as elements of the Al Cohn style.
Lew: Those guys are my seniors. But I liked Al Cohn's sound, and I had a Conn 10M tenor and a Brillhart rubber mouthpiece. And in about 2 hours I was close in a way.
At the same time I heard Sonny Rollins and Coltrane. You know, Tim, for a while I was really copying 'Trane. A period of late '50s, the early Coltrane, the stuff with Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue". When I got around 20 I decided to find out who I was. So a few older guys introduced me to different players on records, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Hawkins.
I couldn't understand Hawkins. It was a little too difficult. The sound and sense of time was foreign to me.
So I decided to make investigations. If I could figure out the history more, I could find my own way. Listening to Sonny Rollins I could hear that in his playing. I could hear that history in his playing; I could kind of detect that, a personal approach.
The key to finding personal style was listening to a lot of different people and get some continuity. A few years passed and the light bulb went on and I really stated to like Hawkins.
To this day, he is a very strong source of inspiration. He is a powerful source, and it's remained that. In a way, more than Coltrane or even Lester Young.
Tim: How would you describe Hawkins' time concept and the way he used the time, compared to the other players in his era?
Lew: Being the first, he set the style and standard. His sound and approach was what he went for.
In Hawkins' mind, the player that he thought would be the next major force, coming from his stream, would be Chu Berry; though Chu didn't live that long, unfortunately. I think Chu Berry was one of the guys in that basic style that developed something out of that style. Though Don Byas must be in the same consideration as Art Tatum would. The way he handled the instrument and his sound, his sophistication. Byas was one of the giants. Byas systemized Hawkins' approach a little bit.
Tim: What's something, or some things, you've done to develop your sound? You have a great sub-tone, a solid low register, and beautiful time. The bottom 5th of your horn is so fat and round.
Lew: Basically I try to formalize what Byas was doing – I started to work on what I considered to be a modified sub-tone. Playing low G down with very little bottom pressure from the lip, and I think sub-tone but with intensity. So it's a sub-tone that kind of projects. Kind of basically drop the lower lip a bit and push more air to support the sound.
And, once you start getting into that, it makes the whole rest of the horn easier to play.
And through the years my equipment got a little heavier. As I got older I heard a different sound and I needed a heavier reed and a mouthpiece with a bigger chamber. I'm using a #4 Hemke reed and a older link from around the '60s. Ralph Morgan worked on them. They are a little over an eight star. Reeds that I use now I wouldn't have touched 10-15 years ago; I would have thrown them out. The cane is so bad. It's a sad situation. That's the most disgusting part of playing, finding reeds. The reed business is the only business in which the worse the product is the more you sell. I got to buy 30 or 40 boxes at a time to get a couple that play okay. If they were good I could cut that in half. They're really making more money by producing a lousy product. Somebody should make a state-of-the-art reed!
Tim: Do you think one of the problems of today's music and musicians is that jam sessions, going to small clubs, and being in that environment is an effect on a player's development?
Lew: Oh, sure. When I first came to New York in 1965 being in Thad Jones and Mel Lewis's band, and you'd look up and you don't know who you're gonna see in the club. Anybody could be there at any time, and you better be playing good every time you get up to play or you'll embarrass yourself. It's that pressure; you got to play our solo like it's the last solo you're ever gonna play.
Tim: Yeah, ya know take off the gloves and go for blood!
Lew: Right! You got to just go to the limit of what you play.
I remember looking up in the Vanguard and seeing Colman Hawkins or Sonny Rollins in the audience. Nowadays it's not like that. It's a different ballgame. You've got 20-year-old kids playing with 20-year-old kids. That doesn't lead anywhere. The continuity is not being maintained. The way I look at it, young players are supposed to energize the older players; older players are to give the younger players the benefit of their years of playing. It's a natural development. But, it's not happening now. The interaction is not there.
Tim: The social aspect of the jam session is gone.
Lew: Well, you can't play with some of these younger players because they treat a jam session like it's a big gig or something. They even dress that way.
To try to communicate is essential when playing jazz music. There are some exceptions, of course.
Tim: How does your big band role differ or enhance your small group playing?
Lew: In a big band the challenge is different. You have a certain amount of time to develop a solo, in a few choruses. You have to come to the point quicker in a big band. I like to listen to classic stuff the way Lester played with Basie. In the big band, that's the real lesson on how to do that. Just perfect ingredients.
Tim: Like Lester's solo on "Taxi-War Dance".
Lew: That's poetry! That's real poetry. Perfection, you wouldn't want to change a note.
What I try to do in a big band – it's a composer's medium – what I try to do is I try to come out of the music. I don't impose myself. I open myself to the spirit and essence of what the music is. My soul will try to reflect the approach and the context of what the music is saying. And most of all learn to come out of the music, and not impose myself on the music.
Tim: What are some things that you're on that you feel are some of your best solos and playing via records?
Lew: There's some good things on that last C.D. I did on Concord called "I'll Be Seeing You". And there's some things on one of the big band records (Ascent Records) called "European Memoirs". Also I'm happy with the other records on Ascent called "Black and Tan Fantasy".
Tim: Any final thoughts on the art of the tenor?
Lew: I think a lot of young guys reading this should try to find out how all this stuff came about. It's the same blood running through us. We're different branches from the same root.
I strongly suggest they go study Hawkins, Lester and all those people around them. And don't get locked into one or two players.
Plus, one other thing I feel is very important is not to confuse art with fashion. Fashion is something that is temporary, and art is permanent. Don't get caught up in what is fashionable at the expense of the music.