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Eric Lewis and his 'rockjazz' piano

By Shanon Cook, Special to CNN
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The art of 'rockjazz'
  • Performer Eric Lewis calls his eclectic style "rockjazz"
  • His debut album, "Rockjazz Vol. 1," includes covers of songs by the Rolling Stones and The Killers
  • Lewis won prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in 1999

New York (CNN) -- There's no point inventing a label for pianist Eric Lewis' eclectic performance style; he's beaten everyone to the punch. He calls it "rockjazz."

"It's all about distinguishing oneself in the marketplace," says Lewis, who goes by the moniker ELEW. "Charlie Parker had bebop. Scott Joplin had ragtime. Labels serve a purpose. They help one be identified. And I want to be identified."

Rockjazz, according to Lewis, takes the improvisational aspect of jazz and "threads it through the eye of the needle of rock."

Listen to his debut album "Rockjazz Vol. 1" and you'll hear covers of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and The Killers' "Mr. Brightside." Glance at his forearms while he's playing, and you'll see he's wearing metal medieval arm braces (widely available on the internet, he tells us).

While he doesn't slay a dragon midsong, his performance is nothing short of dramatic. Lewis, 36, opts to stand rather than use a piano stool, his legs at times adopting a stance so wide you hope he doesn't split his pants. He also likes to reach into the piano to manipulate its strings, scratching them to imitate the sound of maniacal laughter or beating them like bongos. Headbanging comes into play when Lewis' fingers hit the keys with incredible force and speed.

It's a physical experience for the 6-foot-2 musician, and his manager keeps generous supplies of Gatorade on hand to keep the electrolytes flowing when he's onstage. When Lewis performed for at KMA Music studio in Midtown Manhattan, the Yamaha looked like it could've used some Gatorade, too, after Lewis put it through a relentless workout.

"I've never broken a piano," Lewis says. "However, I've been banned from particular clubs for breaking piano strings."

The rock edge is still a fairly new element to his repertoire since he emerged from the jazz world about three years ago. He cut his teeth performing for jazz luminaries such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and singer Cassandra Wilson, and in 1999 he won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition.

Marsalis, it turns out, helped plant the seed from which Lewis' rockjazz grew. "I would be playing gigs with Wynton Marsalis, and he would have a tray of all these different mutes and stuff that he would put in his horn. There were all these wonderful vocal effects that he could get. And I would always wonder, 'How can I do something like that on the piano?' "

While jazz purists and some club owners might turn up their noses at Lewis' amplified style, it's certainly creating a big buzz. Designer Donna Karan invited Lewis to perform live during her fall runway show last year. Actors Forest Whitaker and Hugh Jackman are noted fans, and Lewis blew his audience away during a performance at this year's TED conference, an elite gathering of futurists, philosophers and techies.

And then there was a performance for the Obamas at the White House last May where -- much to Lewis' surprise -- his reputation had preceded him.

"It was the oddest thing," he says. "The first lady already knew me because she had seen some of my videos at the TED conference. So she was like, 'Hey, Eric! Come on in!' I was completely thrown off my script. Then she said, 'You gotta kill it! Kill it!'" The performance, that is, not a dragon.