Those timeless qualities make Jesse Lewis Union, the new CD from guitarist Jesse Lewis, one of the most soulful and refreshing albums to emerge from New Orleans' contemporary jazz scene. It has a classic feel, but doesn't contain any standards or cover songs. The music stands on its own, but the stories behind Jesse Lewis Union add more poignant layers to a debut CD that was never intended for commercial release.
"I had written all this music, and wanted to document it just for myself," says the 24-year-old Lewis. "So I went into the studio a year ago with some of my favorite musicians. After that, I just gave it to my friends and family. Then John Worthington (of Lakefront Digital Records) came to one of my gigs, and said he was interested in me making a record for his label. I told him, 'Well, I have a recording that's been sitting in my closet for the last six months."
Union is just the beginning of what looks like a promising career, but it's also a culmination of sorts encapsulating Lewis' New Orleans experiences. The Boston, Mass., native moved here from Boston in 1996 and enrolled in Loyola University's music program, where he studied guitar with Jon Eubanks. He then transferred to UNO after two years, where Steve Masakowski taught him. In a traditional rite of passage for local music students, Lewis also immersed himself in the club scene, playing in various settings. "I had been focusing on studying trad jazz and bebop," says Lewis.
The gig that was most important to Lewis' development was drummer James Alsanders' regular Tuesday gigs at the Funky Butt. In Alsanders, Lewis found a simpatico collaborator for the new music he started writing -- compositions with parts specifically written with various local musicians in mind.
"I'd bring it by James' house, and it would be just him and me trying to get the melodies and harmonies, and I let him come up with cool rhythms," Lewis says. "Once we got that established, then me and James and (bassist) Mark Anderson started to get together. For the rest of it, I just picked out my three favorite horn players who've really inspired me."
Trumpeter Andrew Baham and saxophonists Scott Bourgeois and Derek Douget joined the fold, along with Jason Marsalis on vibes, and Quintology/Stanton Moore guitarist Brian Seeger on pedal steel. It was the perfect combination to execute Lewis' direct and lush soundscapes, which were inspired by his New England roots.
"Folk music is another huge influence on me, because it's sort of what I was raised on," says Lewis. "It's a real personal thing to me. I wrote most of the music over a six-month period, often when I was visiting my father, who lives in the middle of nowhere up in New Hampshire. The seeds of most of the songs came from sitting by the pond near his house. On 'White Pond Song,' the beginning of the melody came from hearing these birds chirping the same four notes over and over, and I started playing along with them. ... A lot of it was conceived in the woods."
That serenity and natural beauty resonate throughout Jesse Lewis Union. Lewis' compositions are generous and selfless; chances are you won't hear another debut album from a guitarist that has so few guitar solos. Everything flows seamlessly, and the horn charts provide the album's heartbeat.
"I've done a lot of stuff down here, playing bebop over chord changes, but what I identify with most is harmonic music and melodies, and real simple chord progressions," says Lewis. "I basically wrote folk songs, with the solo sections left open, giving the players the freedom to stretch and take it to the next section of the song. Don't get me wrong -- I like playing over chord changes, too, but I hear music in a more simple way. And I wanted to write a body of music as a suite, and have each song have a meaning into the next song. I wanted the whole album to be a story."
Lewis succeeded, and Jesse Lewis Union is one of the best stories of 2002. And considering that he's only 24 years old, it's going to be fascinating to hear which musical roads Lewis takes in the future.