Except, describing ELEW as a pianist is like describing Picasso as a painter: it’s technically true but such an understatement as to border on insulting. ELEW is the pioneer of Rockjazz — a music form that combines the essential elements on rock and jazz into something that has to be both seen and heard to believe.
So here goes…
Three years on, ELEW is preparing to release his second Rockjazz album, and he’s giving PandoDaily readers an exclusive first-listen. I mean, that’s interesting, right? That a Thelonious Monk Award-winning musician who has collaborated with Sting and Lil Wayne and played Madison Square Garden would choose to debut his new album on a site that covers entrepreneurship?
Truth is, ELEW’s story is as much an entrepreneurial one as a musical one. As I’ve written before, every aspect of ELEW’s professional “brand” right down to his choosing of the name (“when I Googled ‘ELEW’ and there were no other results, I knew I was on to something…”) is the result of careful planning: of iteration and re-iteration. It’s a story familiar to any good entrepreneur.
I caught up with ELEW last week while I was in NY for PandoMonthly, and he explained how the second act of Rockjazz is even more of an entrepreneurial tale than the first. For one thing, it began at last year’s “Summit At Sea”, a ship-bound conference that promised to help a “new generation of leaders to succeed in business and in life”. One night, while the other attendees left the boat for a party on a nearby island, ELEW remained on board the ship, with his manager, Nancy Hirsch, and one other guest, who had yet to hear ELEW play. “We all went to this empty casino on the ship where there was a piano and I played a private show for her.”
As it turned out, ELEW’s one-woman audience was Trish Tobin Kubal, a keen patron of the arts. “At the end of the set, she wrote me a check for a hundred thousand dollars to finance Rockjazz volume two.”
If that’s the kind of angel story that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs dream of, then those same entrepreneurs would also surely recognise the anxiety that followed. ELEW now felt responsible to his investor to deliver the best “product” he possible could. Given the deeply passionate — almost supernatural — nature of ELEW’s performances, it’s slightly strange to find him so accepting of the capitalist realities of his career.
“I have to be amphibious,” he says. “Like Navy Seals have to be equally comfortable in water and out of water, I have to be equally comfortable with the artistic side and the commerce side.”
“I’m a service provider,” he adds. “On one hand I want to serve the audience the best that I can, and on the other I want to serve Nancy and those on the business side who are relying on me.”
(Spoiler alert: the album is phenomenal — and all the more so knowing the process behind its creation.)
Serving the audience meant further honing the concept of Rockjazz — something which, to a musical dunce like me seems at once unfathomably complex (I still have no idea how he causes a piano to make those sounds) but also deceptively simple (his source material consists of well known tracks from the likes of Coldplay, U2, and the Doors). It’s only when ELEW explains the challenges of combining rock with jazz that I start to understand what a ridiculous challenge he has set himself, and why so few jazz musicians have managed to successfully “cover” rock music.
The basis of rock, he explains, can be found in military music. It was music to march to — one-two, one-two, one-two — he taps out a rhythm on the table. That’s the reason it’s so popular, it’s literally designed to make everyone march in step, to make everyone move and think in the same way. Jazz music was born as a response to that same military music. Jazz is music that you can’t march to; music almost designed not to be popular.
The challenges of combining rock with jazz, to transform rock standards into a jazz form, are many. Rock offers a wider range of instrumental effects — a need to replicate the rock guitar sound is what caused ELEW to start experimenting with playing the inside of the piano — but it also needs to stay true to that military origin. “It’s the thread that runs through rock. Everything else you can pull apart and put back together and mess around with, but if you mess with that core, the whole thing falls apart.” Then comes the jazz part — the ability to break out of the rigid format of a rock track — three minutes, verse-chorus-verse-chorus — and use the disciplines of jazz to highlight, enhance, and otherwise riff on the parts of a song that are interesting.
As he’s explaining, and my mind is stretching to try to understand the complexities of Rockjazz, it occurs to me that what ELEW is describing is a kind of musical annotation. The rock part is the core — the steady thread that keeps us all tapping along — but the jazz part — where ELEW grabs a single part of, say, The Doors’ “People Are Strange” and stretches it almost to breaking point, highlighting every detail — acts as a form of audio footnote, telling the audience ‘Hey, do you realise how amazing this part of the song is? Listen! Listen again!’
ELEW smiles. “Right!” I feel like a kid who has got the correct answer in math class.
Towards the end of our conversation, which lasts almost two hours, ELEW talks about some of the life changes he’s experienced in the years between Rockjazz volume one. He talks about how, like many artists, he’s struggled with depression — “the dragon that we have to tame” — but also how he hopes that his music, and his success, can inspire other people who face those same dark times.
“There have been moments when I’ve been hanging off the edge of the cliff, hanging by just one little finger, you know? And I’ve been able to just hold on and pull myself back up, slowly, one finger at a time. If I can reach someone else who is holding on by just a finger and give them enough hope to pull themselves back up…”