Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Mark Lewandowski

A Bouquet (for Lady Day)

by Ian Mann

September 14, 2023


A thoughtful and very distinctive tribute to the genius of Billie Holiday.

Mark Lewandowski

“A Bouquet (for Lady Day)”

(Ubuntu Music)

Mark Lewandowski – double bass, Liam Noble – piano, Heidi Vogel – vocals

New York based bassist Mark Lewandowski has established a reputation as a reliable sideman and has previously been sighted by The Jazzmann performing in this capacity with bands variously led by saxophonists Rachael Cohen, Leo Richardson and Ed Jones, pianist Zoe Rahman and a quintet co-led by saxophonist Ruben Fox and trumpeter Mark Kavuma.

Nottingham born Lewandowski studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music and in addition to the names listed above has played with some of the giants of British jazz, including saxophonists Sir John Dankworth, Peter King, Alan Skidmore, Bobby Wellins, Jean Toussaint, Julian Siegel, Mark Lockheart, Paul Dunmall and Soweto Kinch, pianists Julian Joseph and Liam Noble, vocalist Christine Tobin and drummers Paul Clarvis and Mark Sanders. It’s an impressive list that transcends a number of jazz genres.

Lewandowski’s ability and versatility has seen him crossing the Atlantic to study at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and he was also mentored by the late, great American jazz bassist Henry Grimes (1935-2020).

In 2017 Lewandowski moved to New York, where he still lives and works, performing with leading American jazz musicians such as saxophonists David Liebman, John Zorn, Lew Tabackin, Javon Jackson, Steve Wilson, Wayne Escoffery, JD Allen and Eric Alexander, trumpeters Wynton Marsalis, Jeremy Pelt and Jon Faddis, pianists Cyrus Chestnut, Sullivan Fortner and Dave Kikowski, guitarists Peter Bernstein and Vic Juris, vibraphonists Steve Nelson and Warren Wolf, drummers Joe Chambers, Nasheet Waits, Willie Jones III and Joe Farnsworth and vocalist Sheila Jordan. He has also performed with the large ensembles The Mingus Big Band and The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. This is another hugely impressive list and one that is is by no means comprehensive, but is it is a testament to Lewandowski’s adaptability and musicianship.

In addition to his multiple sideman credits Lewandowski is also a composer, arranger and bandleader. His 2021 album “Under One Sky” was recorded in New York and features Lewandowski leading a trio that includes pianist Addison Frei and drummer Kush Abadey. The album title celebrates the cities of London and New York and the programme features Lewandowski’s own compositions exclusively.

However Lewandowski is very aware of his place within the jazz tradition and other projects have celebrated the legacies of some of the giants of the music,  including a 2015 commission by the EFG London Jazz Festival, that saw him reimagining the music of the great Charles Mingus, one of Lewandowski’s primary musical influences.

At the 2016 EFG LJF I saw Lewandowski give two performances honouring two very different great jazz greats, the pianists Paul Bley and Fats Waller.

The Bley tribute took place at the Iklectik Art Lab venue in Waterloo and featured a Lewandowski led quartet that included pianist Liam Noble, saxophonist Tom Challenger and drummer Jeff Williams. Paul Bley (1932 – 2016) had passed away earlier in the year and an intense and sometimes challenging set included compositions by Carla Bley alongside a couple of Lewandowski originals. A fuller review of this performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;

A few days later a trio featuring Lewandowski, Noble and drummer / percussionist Paul Clarvis were at The Vortex in Dalston to perform a tribute to Fats Waller as part of an unusual Festival double bill that also featured the international sextet Bureau of Atomic Tourism. The Waller set was recorded by Alex Bonney and was eventually released on Whirlwind recordings as the album “Waller” in 2017. My review of the original live show, which again forms part of my Festival coverage, can be found here;

The Lewandowski trio certainly placed their own stamp on Waller’s music with the bassist subsequently stating;
“We’ve all studied early jazz alongside our more contemporary projects, and everything I do is very heavily informed by the Black-American tradition – it’s how I first fell in love with this music. So it’s been a great way to focus on Fats’ output; and I can even envisage some continuity in us exploring other historical artists in the same way. You can’t hide behind this music, so we wanted it to be as honest as possible, based on our own instincts. We’re using our collective influences of the past to inform how we improvise as contemporary musicians – and I hope, for listeners, it’ll be a gateway to the wider, colourful world of Fats Waller.”

That promise of “exploring other historical artists” now finds expression by way of this latest release. As is implicit in its title “A Bouquet (for Lady Day)” represents Lewandowski’s homage to the great vocalist and songwriter Billie Holiday. Again it’s a live set, recorded by Bonney during a performance at The Vortex in September 2022, during one of Lewandowski’s regular visits back to London. This time it’s essentially a duo performance by Lewandowski and Noble, with guest vocalist Heidi Vogel appearing on two songs. The album sees Lewandowski moving to the Ubuntu Music imprint as he releases his first recording for the label.

Lewandowski says of his Billie Holiday project;
“This album aims to concentrate on the beauty of Billie Holiday’s music and her life.  Too often the focus is on the negative side and the pain that she felt during her short time in a cruel world. Her blues, however, I find both sweet and sorrowful. In Liam Noble I’ve found discovered a wonderful friend, collaborator and mentor who’s whose style is rich from his many diverse influences, whilst maintaining what I consider to be a truly unique individual voice. He’s an inspiration to me and I’m thrilled to have him play with me again following Waller, our 2017 treatment of historical music that examines the songbook of the great Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller”.

He continues;
“An additional special guest, vocalist Heidi Vogel, contributes on two of the tracks. Heidi has a wonderful way of singing songs without the smallest shadow of a doubt that she means the lyrics 100%. This feature of her voice reminds me greatly of Billie Holiday, although Heidi possesses her own signature sound and style which has been a pleasure to include on this project.  I have carefully selected repertoire (from what is a humongous catalogue!) to highlight some of the key musical relationships in Holiday’s tragically short life.  Her pianists, Teddy Wilson and Mal Waldron; song writing partnerships such as the one with misunderstood pianist Herbie Nichols; and who can forget her dearest and closest friend, Lester Young.  We have also featured compositions of Billie’s to show the most personal side of her music (although she famously commented that she wasn’t able to sing even a standard song if she didn’t feel the lyrics) – ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ and ‘Left Alone’ purposefully feature Heidi on these wonderful Holiday originals”.
“I find playing duo with a pianist amongst the most challenging of line-ups, so I have aimed to explore ways of dealing with the level of space and intimacy that goes with this particular instrumentation.  It’s forced me to improvise in a different way, trying to take the melodicism of her style and that of her contemporaries, and find my own way as a modern improvising musician - to convey the way her music makes me feel, attempting to avoid pastiche and nostalgia. I hate the words ‘tribute band’ and I have no intention of making this project fall under within that category. I’d see it more as personal reflection and commentary, that hopefully has that magical balance of being informed by the rich tradition of the source material, yet personal and current in its aesthetic.  The messages we are trying to convey as we play this repertoire are coming from us, and it is important to us all that we are not merely regurgitating the music that we have selected. I believe I achieved this somewhat with the Waller record, so I’m hoping that the same can be said after this one is released. It’s been on my mind that this may be a developing artistic concept of mine - going back and forth between dealing with the great repertoire of the tradition and my own humble contributions as composer.  In no way do I find them to be mutually exclusive.”

The album commences with the brief “Day Breaks”, which is credited to Lewandowski and Noble and is presumably freely improvised. The leader is featured on the bow, his arco playing underpinned by Noble’s rippling piano arpeggios. There’s maybe even a hint of bird song in there too.

A subtle blues influence informs the intimate duo performance of “More Than You Know”, with Lewandowski playing pizzicato and consistently finding interesting ways of complementing Noble’s melodic piano explorations. The bassist also steps forward to solo, underpinned by Noble’s intelligent and sympathetic piano chording.

Irving Berlin’s “This Year’s Kisses” opens with a moody and dramatic arco bass / piano overture before bursting into joyous, swinging life as Lewandowski puts down the bow. The duo bounce ideas off each other in playful fashion, but their love and respect for their source material is never in doubt.

That subtle blues influence also imbues the Gordon Jenkins / Johnny Mercer tune “P.S. I Love You”, which features a delightfully melodic, and highly inventive,  pizzicato bass solo from Lewandowski. Essentially this piece represents a bass feature for the leader, but Noble’s understated but responsive support shouldn’t be underestimated.

“What A Little Moonlight Can Do” is given a radical contemporary makeover as it is transformed into a moody and highly evocative rubato ballad that summons up suitably nocturnal images. The richly atmospheric performance features more virtuoso playing from Lewandowski, both with and without the bow. I think I detected a smattering of pre-recorded sounds in there too, unless there really was a siren going off in Gillett Square at the time the album was being recorded.

A rollicking version of Holiday’s “Billie’s Blues” represents a feature for Noble that combines straight forward piano boogie woogie with elements of free playing and concludes with an extended passage of unaccompanied piano.

The stage is now set for Heidi Vogel to join the duo to deliver a powerful and soulful vocal rendition of “Lady Sings The Blues”, co-written by Holiday and pianist Herbie Nichols. Vogel captures the spirit of Holiday’s words but doesn’t try to imitate her vocally. Instead Vogel puts her own stamp on the song with an expressive and impressive vocal performance that extends beyond mere copying or pastiche.

“Some Other Spring” features the core duo, with Lewandowski deploying the bow on another of those dramatic attention grabbing introductions. Thereafter the mood becomes more introspective and lyrical, with the leader graduating to melodic pizzicato double bass.

“The Still Of The Night” is credited to Lewandowski, Noble and Irving Berlin and represents another brief, presumably largely improvised episode, but with a snippet of a Berlin tune thrown into the mix. Lewandowski is featured with the bow.

The penultimate “Who Wants Love?” commences by featuring some tightly focussed interplay between plucked bass and piano, while maintaining an easy sense of swing. A solo passage from Noble then introduces a darker mood and even a degree of wilful dissonance, before a degree of gently swinging normality returns.

The album concludes with Vogel returning to make her second contribution as she sings the Billie Holiday / Mal Waldron song “Left Alone”. With Lewandowski initially wielding the bow it’s a dark and dramatic rendition with Vogel delivering an emotive vocal that captures something of Holiday’s pain and loneliness. It represents a stunning way to close out the album. The audience applause that must surely have greeted this has been edited out, despite the elements of ‘found sounds’ that remain elsewhere in the mix.

“A Bouquet (for Lady Day)” has been very well received by the jazz press and represents a thoughtful and very distinctive tribute to the genius of Billie Holiday. Well known Holiday songs like “Lover Man” and “God Bless The Child” have deliberately been avoided, presumably to avoid cliches and comparisons. A largely instrumental tribute to a singer represents an intriguing prospect and overall it works very well, although Vogel’s vocal contributions also add hugely to the overall success of the recording.

Lewandowski’s playing is superb throughout, both with and without the bow, and it’s easy to see why he has become so successful in New York. Noble represents the perfect foil for him, an intelligent and versatile pianist with a huge imagination and one who is particularly adept at performing solo or in duos. His recent duo album “Lucky Teeth”, recorded with alto saxophonist Geoff Simkins, represents another case in point. Review here;

blog comments powered by Disqus