Beethoven Meets Jimi Hendrix
A Theological Appreciation of
Eric Lewis (Jazz Pianist)
By Jay McDaniel
Meet Eric Robert Lewis, also known by his stage name ELEW.
Wikipedia describes him as "an American jazz pianist who has found crossover success playing rock and pop music. He is known for his unconventional and physical playing style, which eschews a piano bench and includes reaching inside the piano lid to pull at the strings directly, as well as the creation that he calls Rockjazz, a genre that "takes the improvisational aspect of jazz and 'threads it through the eye of the needle of rock.'" (GO)
And lest you think that his musical career is completely defined by a combination of rock and jazz, consider the segments on the left where he plays Happy Birthday and the National Anthem at a NASCAR event. He is trained as a classical musician and has played in many more traditional jazz bands. He has an angry side and a funny side. He's filled with talent.
What do you think?
So what do you think after you watch and listen? Much will depend on the interpretive lens you bring to the encounter. You might bring a Marxist lens, or a Psychoanalytic lens, or a Postcolonial lens, or a Christian lens, or a Buddhist lens. Or, as is most often the case, you may be wearing glasses with multiple kinds of visual enhancement: trifocals, for example.
At every moment of our lives we are integrating experiences and insights acquired from the past into our encounter with the present. The many experiences of our past become part of the present, and in our improvised respond to what we hear, a new experience emerges which becomes part of the future. As Whitehead puts it, the many become one and are increased by one. The process does not really end. Our being is our becoming.
A Willingness to Be Touched
But back to the present moment. As we listen to Eric Lewis, perhaps we -- you and I -- might try to take off our glasses and be immersed in the experience, without judgement.
There's certainly wisdom in this attempt to be non-judgmental. If we want to be honest to the art and music we receive, we must begin with a desire to be touched by what is presented, without adding our own commentary. This being touched includes the visual component, too. As Evelyn Glennie explains, listening and seeing are both specialized forms of touching and being touched. (GO)
There's great value in this willingness to be touched. The more we try to listen freely and openly, without prejudging, the better able we can respond in a wise and informed way to what is presented. The analysis and evaluation can come later, but in the beginning, there must be a listening.
But We are always Interpreting
But I must admit that, even in saying this, I am bringing an interpretive lens to the subject. In fact I am wearing trifocals.
My own lens is shaped by Christianity with its emphasis on generosity of heart and welcoming the stranger, and by Buddhism with its emphasis on being mindfully present, in a non-judgmental way, to what presents itself. In addition, like other writers for this website, I am shaped by still another set of glasses, variously called "process theology" or "process philosophy" or, in China, "constructive postmodernism."
Process theology is now being developed by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, and Bahai's in different parts of the world. It is influenced by Whitehead and emphasizes the importance of listening: that is, of approaching life with a willingness to be touched.
Indeed tt sees love as having two sides: sharing in the feelings of others and responding in caring ways. The active side of love -- the responsive side -- must be undergirded by listening or it lapses into a will-to-power, an impulse to create the world in one's own image, all under the rubric of love or goodness or justice.
The act of being touched is a form of what Whitehead calls prehending. Whitehead believes that within the very depths of our experience, moment by moment, there is an act of prehending or feeling the feelings of other people and the natural world.
Certainly something like this is happening when we listen to Eric Lewis. He is playing music and also playing feelings. He is exploring emotional registers of the soul. We are hearing the registers. We are feeling the feelings.
Think About It
After listening, we think about it. His music functions as a springboard for reflection. From a process perspective, thiis one of the great values of art and music. It is invitation to create a little music of our own, inside our minds, by reflecting on what we have seen and heart. Here are some reflections of my own which emerge after listening to a lot of Eric Lewis.
1. Intensity. There's a whole lot of intensity in his playing. Process theologians say that we humans are continuously beckoned by the mystery at the heart of the universe -- God -- to seek satisfying forms of harmony and intensity. Sometimes, if there's too much harmony in our lives, we need intensity. And sometimes, if there's too much intensity, we need harmony. The ideal is a combination: harmonious intensity. Process theologians speak of this combination at lived beauty or, to use a phrase of Frederich Buechner's gladness of the heart. It seems to me that Eric Lewis is looking for gladness, too.
2. Justice. The impulse toward gladness can sometimes be selfish, but it need not be. When people seek and work for justice in the world, they are seeking a certain kind of gladness. It is not an isolated gladness; it is a social gladness. It is the gladness that can be enjoyed when you are with other people in respectful, mutually empowering, and diverse ways. When Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that some day people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, he was searching for gladness. When Jesus prayed for a basilea theou to come on earth as it is in heaven, he was searching for gladness, too. Gladness need not be equated with happiness. It is a search for meaning, for pattern, for harmony, for intensity, for the fulness of life.
3. De-Construction. Sometimes justice involves a retention of inherited forms of order and predictable patterns. But sometimes it involves a de-construction of what is expected, of what is conventional, so that new possibilities can be discovered. Those with vested interests in predictability -- in inherited forms of order -- will be unsettled, but this is as it should be. Consider Jesus. He was a rebel in his time: he comforted the afflicted but afflicted the comfortable. Musicians who explore new possibilities for sound are doing something like this, too. They are de-constructing familiar patterns and constructing new sounds, opening doors for fresh possibilities, for novelty. They may not be seeking justice, given some definitions, but they are seeking novelty, and novelty is an essential dimension of justice. They reveal to us part of the spirit of justice-seeking.
4. God. The impulse within each of us to seek living beauty in the first place -- the primordial desire for hamonious intensity or gladness -- originates in a reality deeper than our conscious minds and egos. It comes from God. But the exact content of the impulse -- the particular possibilities contained within it -- vary according to circumstance. In some circumstances we may be called to play a song by Evanescence and in others we may be called to play Happy Birthday. The God to whom process theologians point is similar to the God of open theism. Open theism appeals to evangelical Christians, process theology appeals to ecumenical Christians and progressive Jews, but these two theological lineages have much resonance. Both point to a God for whom the future is not-yet-decided, not-yet-determined, not-yet-known, because there is nothing actual to be known. God knows what is possible in the future, but not what is actual until actualized.
5. Adaptability. For process theologians this means that God's very presence in the universe is adaptive. In process theology God is continuously present in the universe, not just watching from afar. But God's presence is like music or the wind. It can be felt but not grabbed. It is felt as a calling within the heart and soul to gladness of heart, the ultimate expression of which is love. But this calling is perpetually adaptive. The God who adapts calls us to be adaptive, too. We can never fix the spirit of God in mental grids of our own making. In the language of East Asian Christianity, we must always be able to go with the flow of God's callings.
5. Integrity. You see some of this adaptivity in the professional life of Eric Lewis. In the very idea of playing so many different kinds of music at different times in your life, there's a kind of integrity. As I write this essay I am teaching a course called Vocations and Integrity to college undergraduates. My colleagues and students have helped me understand that integrity is two things: being true to yourself and doing the right thing in the ongoing process of seeking and sometimes finding wholeness or, to say the same thing, gladness of heart.
I do not know if Eric Lewis has found this gladness. I am pretty sure he is seeking it just like the rest of us. It comes by degree. But I do know that in the very iconoclasm of the persona he presents on stage, we have the sense that he is being true to himself. And I sense that in his being true to himself there's a kind of gladness.
Maybe this gladness depends on his being recognized by others. So often this is the case with artists. But perhaps deep within, there's a kind of joy in being willing to introduce Beethoven to Jimi Hendrix, even if no one likes it. That's integrity.
6. Rightness. Is he, in addition, doing the right thing? In the tradition of process theology, the ultimate principle of rightness in the world is God. But the rightness of God is a flexible rightness, ever-adapting to each new situation, by providing people with fresh possibilities relative to what is needed in the situation at hand. Thus the rightness of God -- the righteousness of God, if we wish -- is not the rightness of a rigid yardstick, but the rightness of love. Love is not unmoved, says Whitehead, and it is always a little oblivious to morals. Love has to be a little crazy in order to be love.
One way that we experience this rightness is in the calling of the moment. In process theology each moment, each circumstance of our lives, has its calling: that is, its ideal way of responding, relative to the situation at hand.
Sometimes the calling is to make the best of a bad situation. Not all things are possible, not even for God. Sometimes it is to explore new possibilities. Sometimes it is to get some sleep. Always it is to be kind and respectful of others and oneself. In the language of Jesus, it is to love your neighbor as yourself.
7. Discerrnment. If we humans are to be discerning of these callings, say process theologians, we must be discerning. We must have an internal sense of what is right in the moment at hand, and be responsive to this rightness. Because circumstances change, we must change, too. We must be flexible with ourselves, willing and able to play different kinds of music at different times in our lives.
8. Vocation. Perhaps we find something of this spirit in the apostle Paul when he writes about sharing the gospel of Jesus with others. In First Corinthians we read:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.
To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.
To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.(9: 20-23)
Admittedly, Paul is interested in helping people find the love of Jesus, whereas Eric Lewis may well have other aims in mind: pleasing listeners, having fun, exploring new possibilities, ventilating feelings. But is there not, within the heart of many a musician, a desire to help people? To bring them a little gladness? To bring little lived beauty into the world that others, too, might see and feel and enjoy.
Certainly this was the impulse in John Coltrane. People complained that his "sheets of sound" were too aggressive, too intense. But he said that was just trying to use all the musical tools at his disposal to seek and find the one thing essential. In the final part of his musical life, Coltrane spoke of the one thing essential as a Love Supreme: that is, as God.
When you listen to the music of Eric Lewis, you hear something of the searching spirit of John Coltrane, albeit with some humor added. Go listen to some more at www.elewrockjazz.com. See if you hear a little Love Supreme. If not, no problem. But let it inspire you to go paint some music of your own, in whatever way you are able. Paint any color you wish. Paint it white or red or gray or blue or black.