Not everything that Lewis and his quintet performed Wednesday night at Ravinia proved equally compelling. But the best of Lewis' original compositions showed real melodic beauty and a daring degree of understatement.
Musicians do not often speak this softly, in other words, and certainly not in an outdoor setting with a packed pavilion and moderate-sized lawn crowd. But Lewis, 78, seems to get bolder with the passing years.
He turned in some of his most disarming work in a new ballad, unnamed until Wednesday evening, when Lewis announced from the stage that a Ravinia concertgoer had come up with the title in an audience-participation contest. Notwithstanding the gimmick, the aptly titled "As Summer Fades Away" conveyed a sweet romantic melancholy, as well as considerable harmonic sophistication.
Lewis opened the piece with a deliciously discordant introduction, his piano touch delicate, his dissonances crying out to be resolved. As the performance proceeded, Lewis just hinted at the melody line, which was swathed in shimmering colors from his ensemble.
The tour de force came during Lewis' solo, his whispering, steadily moving right-hand lines recalling similar passages in the slow movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. When Lewis' delicate trills in both hand ascended to the upper reaches of the keyboard, you knew that Ravel had had a salutary effect on his writing.
Bassist Joshua Ramos helped tell the story here, his solo making the most of every heartfelt note, with delicate brush work from drummer Charles "Rick" Heath.
In all, Lewis has created a potentially significant new song for himself with "As Summer Fades Away," the piece meriting further hearings and development.
Lewis made a strong, if soft-spoken, impression again in his "Quiet Moments," a new vocal-piano piece transformed here for jazz quintet. If the influence of Antonio Carlos Jobim wafted over this music, there was no missing its lyric allure and gentle, Brazilian rhythmic undertow. Bassist Ramos suggested a cello in his warmly bowed lines, and Henry Johnson reminded listeners what an impeccably sculpted guitar line is all about.
Not everything in Lewis' set was quite so dreamy, the pianist leading his quintet in an exuberant, uptempo version of his "Clouds" (originally penned as the ballad "Clouds in Reverie"), with Timothy Gant providing robust keyboard fills. The tune recalled Miles Davis of "Seven Steps to Heaven" vintage.
True, Lewis' reworking of "Tequila Mockingbird" sounded lightweight, its boom-chicka rhythmic backdrop deadening even before it became repetitive. And his '70s hit "Sun Goddess" still sounded synthetic, despite the grit that the quintet tried to apply to it.
Yet Lewis clearly has earned the right to revisit past triumphs that his audience wishes to hear. His achievement on this night was in devoting most of his efforts to new thoughts, most of them engaging.
Singer Natalie Cole, who followed Lewis' show, also drew from recent and past recordings, yet a sense of nostalgia hovered over most of this set. The duets she sang with video clips of her father, Nat "King" Cole, unfortunately magnified the artistic gulf between them. Heard alongside Nat Cole's radiant voice, Natalie Cole's sounded slight and squeaky.
The further she ventured from her father's shadow and repertoire, though, the better she fared, singing passionately in musical tributes to Etta James, with a yearning account of "At Last," and Donna Summer, with a rambunctious "She Works Hard for the Money."
Cole's voice may be thin on top and not quite capable of achieving the soaring climaxes she wants, as in some selections from her recent album "Natalie Cole en Espanol." But she gave generously to her fans – with time and spirit – in a beautifully produced show.