Richard Lewis: The soul of a jazzman

The performer bounds onto the stage, and even before the applause has died down he's standing in front of the microphone, riffing freely.

As his solo takes flight, he picks up the tempo, his thoughts rushing out in a torrent. Quickly, he develops particular themes, discards others, venturing far afield before eventually circling back to where he started.

The crowd roars at this work – its unusual combination of emotional frenzy and intellectual control – punctuating his soliloquy with applause, encouraging him to push farther, take bigger risks, let go of any remaining inhibitions. Soloist and audience are taking this journey together, a trip into the unknown that epitomizes the freedom and daring of one art form above all others: jazz.

Except this artist plays no instrument and sings no tune – he's stand-up comic Richard Lewis, and he comes closer to the essence of jazz than some of the musicians who attempt to play it.

Audiences who have seen Lewis on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or in clubs for the past 40-odd years understandably view him as a human quip machine and a maniacal monologuist, but there's music deep inside his work, as well. If you listen closely, it's clear that Lewis, like Lenny Bruce before him, brings to the art of comedy the impetuousness and element of surprise that are at the heart of jazz. Lewis' mercurial, high-velocity brand of stand-up would be inconceivable without the feverish solos of Charlie Parker and the high-flying virtuosity of Dizzy Gillespie and the ultra-hip phrases of Miles Davis that preceded him.

What Lewis does, more than perhaps any other American comedian today, "is a risk," says Charlie Haden, a Lewis friend and revered jazz bassist who long has admired Lewis' aesthetic. "He's a real spontaneous guy, in every way. Everything that he does, he improvises."

Indeed, Lewis always has explained that when he steps on stage, he has no idea what he's going to say, and the uncounted sets I've seen him perform since the early 1980s have proven the point: No two are alike. Typically, the comedian holes up in his hotel room the day of a show, pondering his problems, nursing his psychic wounds, then prowls the stage dispensing his observations as if he were unloading to his therapist.

Some nights are stronger than others. Some solos soar higher than others. Some audiences get it and some don't.

Just as in jazz.

"That risk is what makes it all so inspiring," adds Haden, speaking of his own work as a jazz musician but, in effect, describing Lewis' as well.

"You don't know what's going to happen. And you have a duty: That you're going to try everything you can to make it beautiful.

"The risks and the art form teach you so much about life. They teach you that there's no yesterday, there's no tomorrow, there's just the moment that you're in."

And that's the core of what jazz and Lewis' work hold in common: The purity of a moment that never will be repeated, that will be shared only between a performer and a single group of listeners. Jazz audiences live for these moments: Benny Goodman pianist Jess Stacy taking a heady, once-in-a-lifetime solo in "Sing, Sing, Sing" at Carnegie Hall in 1938; Parker and Dizzy Gillespie burning it up for the last time together on recording at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1953; the Wynton Marsalis Septet imploring the heavens playing "In This House, On This Morning" at Quinn Chapel AME Church on the South Side of Chicago in 1994.

None of these moments would have been possible if the jazz artists involved hadn't traveled farther out on a limb than anyone could have asked them to – just as Lewis does when he's at his best.

"In all honesty, I have no fun in knowing what I'm doing (in advance)," says Lewis, who opens a four-night run at Zanies comedy clubs on Wednesday night. "And if that's some sort of definition of jazz style, that's fine.

"It doesn't make any sense for me to bore myself, because if I'm bored, the audience will be bored.

"(Marlon) Brando once said, after he did 'Streetcar': No way am I ever going back to Broadway and repeat lines eight times a week," adds Lewis, referring to Tennessee Williams' landmark play "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"That's how I feel. There's no way I want to be beholden to a script. … I'd rather be playing an instrument than just coming out there and doing a play."

In a way, then, perhaps Lewis is playing an instrument – it's just not one that you hold in your hands. Instead, his instrument is his life, and the tunes derive from his obsessions about it: his guilt, his anxieties, his absurdly low self-esteem. Like a jazzman playing chord changes on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" or transforming Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple," Lewis brings a large bag of tunes on stage and remakes them, depending on what captures his fancy at that instant.

Like a jazz musician, he ricochets among a profusion of ideas, altering the rhythm according to the effects he's trying to achieve. The point isn't so much to entertain the audience as to see how far he can carry a notion, how brilliant a solo he can build.

As in jazz, anyone in the crowd who's listening for an easily discernible melody is bound to be disappointed. But if you're willing to let go of preconceptions and try to perceive the larger mosaic, you'll be astonished that such a complex creation could be invented on the spot.

That's Lewis.

And that's something very close to jazz.

Richard Lewis performs at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Zanies, 1548 N. Wells St.; 312-337-4027. Also 8 p.m. Friday and 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Zanies in MB Financial Park, 5437 Park Place, Rosemont; 847-813-0484. $30 plus two item food/beverage minimum; visit zanies.com.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

CHICAGO

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