Robert Lewis, a Renaissance man

Charleston native and saxist a Renaissance man

By Jack McCray
Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Some people do what they do in a way that makes it seem like, well, just business as usual. Another day at the office.Robert Lewis, a fabulous saxophone player, has a slew of offices. He wears many hats related to his love of music.

You can hear Robert Lewis live these days at Mercato, 102 N. Market St. He’s there 8 p.m. until midnight on Saturdays with pianist Gerald Gregory and drummer Ron Wiltrout under the band name Lewis/Gregory/Wiltrout. The trio made a critically acclaimed CD recently called ‘First Takes.’

In fact, it was at an office recently that I was reminded of that. I was at the Jazz Artists of Charleston offices on St. Philip Street, hanging out in the upstairs suite. At one point, Lewis’ daughter, Catie, came sauntering by where I was sitting, collecting some office supplies.

It turns out, she was helping her dad and mom, Jill Terhaar Lewis, downstairs doing volunteer work on JAC’s music library, a formidable task.

It occurred to me that this was yet another thing Robert Lewis does for the local jazz scene, even bringing his family along on this one.

He probably occupies more places on the local jazz landscape than anyone else, now that I think about it.

He’s longtime director of the highly regarded jazz studies program at the College of Charleston. He directs the Jazz Combo I, teaches jazz theory, jazz composition. Quite the educator and clinician, he also gives private lessons on saxophone and jazz improvisation.

A consummate collaborator, Lewis has worked with just about every jazz player of note in the Lowcountry.

He does a lot of things with multi-instrumentalist Frank Duvall, with whom he has also recorded. The two of them were the core of a band that held forth at Charleston Grill for many years, doing foundational work for live jazz in restaurants and lounges that goes on today. The dynamic duo co-authored and recorded two CDs, “Swagger” (2003) and “Fearless Jones” (2006).

Lewis’ website,www.robertlewismusic.com, reports that “Swagger” was featured on the National Public Radio program “JazzSouth,” voted in by the committee with the highest score of any of the featured albums that year. He and Duvall were supported by Quentin Baxter on drums and Bill Anschell on piano. The sidemen were Baxter, again, and pianist Kevin Bales, half of the currently famous Rene Marie Quartet.

All of Lewis’ recordings and other pertinent information can be found at his site.

Another of his feats is that he is the bandleader and lead alto saxophonist for the Darius Rucker Big Band, an ensemble fronted by the famed leader of Hootie & the Blowfish. It features the music of Frank Sinatra.

All of these different activities, perhaps, explain the placid demeanor Lewis usually shows. He has fun, enjoys a good story or joke, but he’s no-nonsense, straight ahead. The guy’s really busy.

So much so, his talents seem to be taken for granted. I’ve certainly been aware of them for years now, so maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about him.

Speaking of big bands, Lewis is a charter member of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra. He’s a conceptual contributor, based on his legion of experiences making music, and he’s a steadying influence on the band. His ideas are relevant; and they work.

The arrangements he has done for the band are magnificent.

For the January Jazz on the Screen concert, he offered a killer version of the theme from “The Jetsons” as well as his version of “The Muppet Show” theme, the biggest hit of the show.

For the Music of Miles Davis concert in May, his “All Blues” did Davis great justice, and his version of “Seven Steps to Heaven,” one of the most difficult pieces in the jazz canon, was stellar. He closed that one out with a wicked alto solo that had the house on its feet before the song was done.

No one around here contributes to jazz on as many levels as Lewis does.

He plays, composes, arranges, leads bands, teaches, collaborates and inspires.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he can sing, too.

But wait, he does that on his horn.

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