Nottingham-born bassist Mark Lewandowski left the UK for New York at the invitation of Wynton Marsalis in mid-2017 to join the Juilliard Artist Diploma Ensemble, a group of six jazz musicians, the majority of whom had travelled to New York from overseas. Two years following this course, Lewandowski has stayed in the US and now busy working in a variety of different contexts.
Recent collaborations include Marsalis, Joe Chambers, Dave Liebman, Billy Drummond along with regular appearances at venues such as Smalls Jazz Club, notably with pianist, vocalist and much-beloved NYC institution Johnny O’Neal’s trio.
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He has a new album with the title “Under One Sky”, with pianist Addison Frei (one of his fellow cohort from the Juilliard Artist Diploma Ensemble), and Washington D.C born drummer Kush Abadey.
Whereas Mark’s previous album Waller, with Liam Noble and Paul Clarvis was made up of Fats Waller tunes, “Under One Sky” consists – with one partial exception (*) – of original compositions. Interview by Sebastian Scotney
LondonJazz News: You have been in New York just over four years, is it now “home”?
Mark Lewandowski: Now that’s a difficult question! It’s taken a while to get to this point, but honestly speaking I’d now say that I ‘feel at home’ here in New York. Of course I’m settled here now, I rent an apartment; have a US cell (sorry) number, a bank account. My dog is here, as is my wife. I occasionally say ‘pants’ instead of ‘trousers’. Practically speaking, I guess it very much is home right now. I haven’t passed the ‘New Yorker’ test yet though. I think they say that takes living in the city for over a decade.
One thing I’m sure of is that I really love it here. I’m constantly inspired by the place, the people and the music. I life in Midtown Manhattan so the second I walk out of my front door I’m swept away in this whirling, frantic rhythm of life here. If I stay here I’m sure I’ll get to the same place as I did with Nottingham when I moved to London. It took a few years of living in London, but eventually the latter took over as where I identified my home to be. Of course I’m incredibly proud to come from the UK, especially as a musician from such a wonderful scene as London. It’s strange – over here there’s a kind of exoticism to being British! I wasn’t aware of it across the pond, but people genuinely thing it’s really cool. I guess Americans get the same treatment in the UK. The grass is greener and all of that.
LJN: The legacy of bebop runs much deeper in the NY scene, is there more of an expectation of that from audiences?
ML: Again, a difficult question as I hate to generalize. I’d say that New York was, is and will always be a bebop town at its core. People can really swing here. They can play fast, they can hit hard. There’s an urgency about life here which I think feeds into the aesthetic of the music. Of course there is wonderful music of all styles being played here, not just bebop as a genre. I think a better way to describe it would be that the music has an attitude of bebop.
I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to play with some incredible drummers over here, who have kicked me into shape with my time and feel. I think my knowledge of playing straight ahead has been expanded by being thrown to the wolves so many times, and the whole experience has left a lasting impact when I play the bass. Of course people can swing really hard in London too, in fact anywhere in the world – that’s not unique to New York. However what can’t be ignored is the history and tradition this city has within the music. For me, being a foreigner means I’m still like a kid in a sweet shop here. I walk my dog multiple times a week down 52nd Street where Bird, Diz, Monk, Max, Bud, Pres, Hawk, OP and the other greats of that era played. I walk my dog past the Stanhope where Bird died. I get a coffee outside Judson Hall where Albert Ayler recorded. I take the train right by the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem where Fats Waller played the organ and his father was pastor. I can sit and drink a glass of wine with Cedar Walton’s wife…
Don’t get me started talking about the feeling I get when I walk down into the Village Vanguard. I’ve always acknowledged the American roots of the music, and most especially the Black American roots of the music. I’m honoured that I get to spend time here, learning from master-musicians and peers alike, and that in my own small way, I can be a guest at the table of this great art form. As I mentioned before, there are all sorts of wonderful styles of music being played here in all genres. As you’ll hear from my new album, it’s certainly not bebop in a strict sense, but my knowledge of that side of the music deeply informs the way I play and write.
LJN: Why have you chosen the title Under One Sky?
ML: This title expresses the feelings I have being a jazz musician between London and New York. The whole album is my musical investigation of my identity as a British jazz musician living in America. I learned so much during my time living in London, and there are many things about the aesthetic of British improvised music that I really admire. For such a small island, there is a stunning amount of deeply creative, thoughtful and expressive artists writing some truly wonderful music. The creative voices of musicians such as Steve Buckley, Chris Batchelor, Byron Wallen, Django Bates, Stan Sultzman, Nikki Iles, Gary Crosby, Mike Walker, Liam Noble, Zoe Rahman, John Taylor and countless have left a lasting influence in me. I’m constantly showing my American friends music from the UK to check out and they always come back excited after they’ve listened. I’m reflecting on the similarities and differences between London and New York and being playful with the musical elements that have become part of my voice as a bassist and composer through living and growing in both of these great cities.
LJN: The compositions seem to have strong linking threads, motifs running through them. What’s going on?
ML: I’m interested in material that circles and dances. I guess this comes from my time studying the Great American Song Book and the more traditional methods of improvising. I took some composition lessons with Dave Douglas at Juilliard. He spoke a lot about the freedom that can come out of simple lead sheet style compositions. One-page wonders. I tried to consolidate all of my ideas into one page of A4 paper and contain all the necessary ingredients to make the piece coherent but not limiting to the musician. I often write figures that are to be played every time the form comes around too. I’m a huge fan of the compositions of Carla Bley who writes these beautiful short pieces. Listen to ‘And Now The Queen’ or ‘Batterie’ or any of those early pieces of hers. It’s beautiful craftsmanship. I value the craft behind composing and the intricacies of written material.
I even like the way music looks on the paper sometimes although it’s important to get the music off of the page at some point – ‘more heart, less chart’. I also wanted the album to be almost understated yet exude this undercurrent of motion and energy. I like the aesthetic of Craig Taborn’s piano trio and the way their energy ebbs and flows. There’s a concept behind all of the pieces on this album too, so that’s why I’m happy to hear that you think the music links up through its musical thread.
LJN: And have there been particular musicians from the UK or from North America who have inspired you to pursue these ideas / concepts?
I guess I answered that in the previous couple of questions, but how about I list a few albums from both sides of the pond that have had a particular impact on me compositionally…
- Liam Noble – In the Meantime
- Steve Buckley & Chris Batchelor – Life as We Know It
- Craig Taborn – Chants
- Fred Hersch & Norma Winstone – Songs and Lullabies
- Andrew Hill – Dusk
- Outhouse – Outhouse
- Miles Davis – Porgy and Bess
- Paul Bley – Closer
- Steve Swallow – Home
LJN: Is “Very Well” the standard… or your tune derived from it?
ML: Oh no! I wish I could write something as wonderful, catchy and elegant as Hoagy Carmichael. ‘Very Well’ is my tune. It’s an exercise in writers block – taking inspiration of something great and using that as a spring board. I simply took the melodic contour of the very first phrase of the standard ‘I Get Along Without You (Very Well)’ and saw where my own melodic sensibility would take it. None of the rest of the piece comes from Hoagy, it’s all mine (I even paraphrase the opening line). The title is just to playfully give him credit for his inspiration. I’m interested in these musical games like superimposing melodies on top of each over, bitonality, experimenting with tempo. I think that is clear from the devices that I used with Fats’ material on ‘Waller’.
LJN: Tell us about the process of recording the new album…
ML: It came out of the pandemic actually. I’m lucky to be very busy here in New York and on the road right now, so when the pandemic hit I was faced with more free time that I knew what to do with. I also wanted to release my first statement of my own original music. That’s why I chose the piano trio again. It’s my favorite vehicle for improvisation and I wanted there to be a direct contrast between my previous record and this new one. I see this album as a huge learning experience for me – I’ve tried to take control of the whole process without a label. From picking up the pencil, to PR I’ve tried to learn as much about the ways in which the artist can release music. I recorded at a wonderful studio in Brooklyn called Acoustic Recording with the amazing Michael Brorby engineering. We had two rehearsals to get the music sounding good, although I have significant musical tenures with both Addison and Kush. I respect their musicality so much that the music fell right into place. I’m greatly inspired by musicians like Jason Moran and Dave Douglas who have been releasing their own music on Bandcamp etc. In the evolving world of the music business, it seems to be the best way of lessening the gap between artist and audience. It allows the musician to engage with fans in a direct way. In the future I’m aiming to really increase my artistic output and look forward to sharing more of my creative endeavours.
LJN: And Alex Bonney is involved again….
ML: Oh yes! He’s the best. It was wonderful reconnecting with Alex. He’s a pleasure to work with and a master at what he does. I couldn’t be happier with how the album sounds and the results of his mixing and mastering.
LJN: You have a lot of friends here in London – Are you staying in NY or coming back.. or a bit of both… ?
ML: Although at this time in my life, I see myself staying based here in New York, I certainly want to be much more transatlantic. This pandemic unfortunately put the breaks on that for a while. Juilliard kind of tied me down to being here in the US for the majority of my time, but now I have the luxury of being totally freelance again.
I miss my friends in London so much, both on and off the bandstand. I’m very keen to reenergize some of these relationships; especially some of the musical associations that I’m very excited by. One that come to mind being my trio with Liam and Paul. I really love that band and what those two amazing improvisers bring out of me.
Another being a trio with Ed Jones and Mark Sanders called ‘Bad Ash’ which plays improv. We did an amazing tour, recorded a record but then didn’t really do anything else. I can’t wait to see how that one develops. With Liam and Paul I intend on looking into the repertoire of another early jazz innovator. Perhaps James P Johnson. I spent time with his original hand written manuscripts, letters and documents recently at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was fascinating. He had some incredible long form pieces he was writing around the same time that Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue. Anyhow, I look forward to traveling between London and New York a lot more in 2022 as things get back to more normalcy.
Under One Sky was released on 5 November 2021