February 2012, Vol. 28, No. 2

D'Vonne Lewis: Reveling in the Music Industry

Photo of D'Vonne Lewis by Daniel Sheehan

By Steve Griggs

"There is a side of me that comes out so easily around him; there is this way we both laugh deeply together with and at life. This joy is felt on and off the bandstand.” That’s what bassist Evan Flory-Barnes says about drummer D’Vonne Lewis. I wonder what side of me would come out around Lewis. Now’s the time to find out.

Lewis opens the door to his apartment with a long, relaxed, “Yeee-aaah.” A native Seattleite, he talks with a warm drawl that evokes sunny southern hospitality. A plaque commemorating a 2006 Earshot Jazz Golden Ear Award for Best Emerging Artist is framed on a side table. I learn that Lewis won Outstanding Soloist awards each of the three years he performed with Roosevelt High School at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition in New York. And he didn’t even play any solos!

Albums by his organist grandfather Dave Lewis lie on the coffee table. At 28, D’Vonne Lewis is young, but his musical roots in Seattle run deep. David Eugene Lewis (1939-1998), considered the father of Northwest rock, signed with A&M Records after being heard by Herb Alpert in a Seattle club. His 1964 single “Little Green Thing” was highlighted on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, exposing him to national audiences. But the influence of the Lewis family on Northwest music goes back even further than that and extends well into the 20th century. Lewis’ great-grandfather, David Eugene Lewis Sr., played guitar and gave musical tips to Jimi Hendrix and neighbor Quincy Jones. His great-uncle, Ulysses Lewis, was a partner in the Paramount Theatre, which hosted R&B shows in the 1980s.

“When I was younger,” Lewis says, “I thought I wanted to play guitar. I would watch the musicians at church and the guitar player was in front. Since the guitar was in front, I thought he was doing everything.”

Lewis’ father, David Eugene Lewis Jr., was supportive but not very involved in family life, so Lewis spent most of his time around the home of his grandmother, Beverly Washington. “I was kind of scared of the drums. It was the sound. It was such a big sound, and I was so little at the time. Later, I started beating pots and pans. My grandmother bought me my first drum set.

“My first teacher was Moc Escobedo at Green Lake Elementary School, then Bud Jackson at Hamilton Middle School, and Scott Brown at Roosevelt High School. The school awards for my drumming stoked the fire and the love of it so much.

“Then my grandmother showed me this picture of my father on the drums and I said, ‘Really? My dad?’ I was just shocked I was trying to be a drummer and I see a picture of my dad on the drums. That was just crazy.”

We walk through several rooms filled with drum gear and down a low-ceiling stairway to a small concrete basement room. Two drum sets, a water heater, and a utility sink fill the rectangular studio. “It’s kind of cold for the first ten minutes down here, so you might want to keep your coat on,” he says.

He sits behind one set of drums and taps a few invitations out of his snare. I quickly assemble my tenor saxophone. As soon as the first note is sounded, we are in musical dialog. I throw out some musical questions alternating between dark and light tones. Lewis churns and chuckles around his kit, then sets up a quiet leisurely gait. A four note ascending melody emerges – could be hopeful or mournful.

In my silences, Lewis’ hands dart between drums, adding texture, dancing and completing the soundscape. After a few laps around the emerging form, I submerge into a low register and repeat a three-note figure. Lewis fluidly rises to the foreground, pushes and splashes through his cymbals. A shimmering end arrives. Sound waves drift into the corners of the room.

“How about swing?” Lewis suggests. He clicks into a medium burn. I switch to alto, and we fly through some bebop changes. Solid time. Wide beat. In this small room, his cymbals are in the face of my horn. I fashion a simple riff melody and Lewis is off, tearing around his tubs. We stop on a dime. The last time I felt this close of a connection with a drummer was on my 1998 recording session with Elvin Jones.

Photo of D'Vonne Lewis by Daniel Sheehan

Flory-Barnes remembers the first close connection he had with Lewis: “I met D’Vonne at a jam session [that] the Aaron Parks Trio was hosting at The Upstage in Port Townsend. D’Vonne sat in and our rapport was instantaneous. The vibe, the good feeling, the smiles were there right away. He was 16 years old.”

Josh Rawlings, keyboardist with Lewis for the last eight years, echoes this recognition of talent. “His musicality directly transforms anyone who listens. All you have to do is go to a live show and see how people respond – from people dancing, to the guys hunched over bobbin’ their heads at the bar, to musicians in the band yelling ‘WHOA!’

“Through years of playing with D’Vonne, I’ve noticed how much he’s grown as an explosive and groove-glued drummer. He’s now a great risk taker in his solos and playing, and he has developed his own creative voice on the instrument. He also just has this knack to sound amazing in any music situation. It’s not all boom-bap or dang-danga-dang. D’Vonne has a bag of tricks that continually hits me on nearly every performance we play.”

Many musicians were quick to heap praise upon Lewis, including trumpeter and KPLU DJ Jason Parker. “He has incredible touch and he knows the history of the music – not just jazz, but most popular music. He can convincingly play just about anything you put in front of him. He is also an attentive listener, both reacting to and propelling the other members of the band. But my favorite thing about playing with D’Vonne is the sheer joy he brings to every note he plays. It’s like he’s a kid who’s just discovered the drums, and that passion and joy comes through the music. It’s infectious, both for the band and for the audience. It doesn’t hurt that he’s the sweetest and most reliable guy around, either.”

Lewis has worked so steadily since he attended high school that he decided to forgo college. “I started playing with [saxophonist] Hadley Caliman when I was still in high school. Then I went on a West Coast tour with singer Jennifer Jones and just kept getting gigs.” Lewis worked with soul and hip-hop artist Darrius Willrich in the projects Blue Scholars and Source of Labor. He performed his grandfather’s music in the band McTuff with organist Joe Doria. Recently, Lewis toured the East Coast with Ethiopian singer Meklit Hadero, celebrated four years of performing with pianist Ron Weinstein at the now defunct Thaiku, appeared at the Royal Room with Skerik and Andy Coe, and laid down some tracks for Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard. At press time, Lewis was also performing in the house band for Teatro ZinZanni.

“I really don’t know what I’m doing,” confesses Lewis. “I try not to get in the way. I try to listen hard. I try to accompany what’s going on.” He enjoys listening to recordings of African drumming and New Orleans street beats.

Until five years ago, Lewis worked only as a sideman with many older and more established performers. Despite this success, his grandmother suggested that he play his own music in his own group like his grandfather. Lewis began to think about possible combinations of musicians his own age. One night while Lewis was gigging at Tula’s with Caliman, his trumpet-playing friend from high school days, Ahamefule Oluo, sat in. After that reunion, Oluo suggested playing with Cornish classmate and keyboardist Josh Rawlings. Lewis remembered the magic of playing with bassist Evan Flory-Barnes and recommended he join in. The collaborative mix of Oluo, Lewis, Rawlings, and Flory-Barnes called themselves Industrial Revelation.

Industrial Revelation released self-produced CDs It Can Only Get Better From Here in 2007 and Unreal Reality in 2010. Both productions sold out. This month the band will release a CD with selections made from a live recording at Olympia’s Eastside Club Tavern on September 9, 2010 – the day after saxophonist Hadley Caliman died.

Everyone in the band had studied or played with Caliman and the set that night included “Dedication to Hadley” and “Color of Caliman.” In between songs, Flory-Barnes says, “We’re definitely playing with his spirit with us.”

The new recording features the band at full throttle, with simple song structures, allowing the band to stretch and flow as the spirit calls. No matter what, all the performers groove together and Rawlings’ electronic effects on the Fender Rhodes put some hair on the funk. Each musician entwines notes into the evolving sound. Their persistent sensitivity magnifies resonance between foreground solo and background accompaniment. The enthusiastic interplay on the bandstand infects the audience, who cheers the band over musical peaks and signifies with solidarity when emotions get deep.

To promote the release, the band will appear at the Conway Muse in Skagit on February 22, at Vito’s in Seattle with Jason Parker on the 23rd, at Creative Music Adventures (the old John’s Music storefront) on the 24th, and a late show at the Eastside Club Tavern in Olympia the same night.

“D’Vonne is a musician of depth, humor and character,” Flory-Barnes summarizes. “He is deeply musical and open to serve whatever music he is playing. He will shy away from solos yet effortlessly lift a band to great heights. The first time I experienced the depths of his musicianship was during an Industrial Revelation show. Even at the loudest dynamic, he was listening and responding to everything going on in the music. Every explosion and subtlety was all in service of the music.”

Journalist and saxophonist Steve Griggs blogs about local jazz at stevegriggsmusic.blogspot.com.

Earshot Jazz is a Seattle based nonprofit music, arts and service organization formed in 1984 to support jazz and increase awareness in the community.  Earshot Jazz publishes a monthly newsletter, presents creative music and educational programs, assists jazz artists, increases listenership, complements existing services and programs, and networks with the national and international jazz community.
©2012 Earshot Jazz, Seattle, Washington