A Perfect Pairing: John Lewis & Svend Asmussen - "European Encounter"

John Lewis & Svend Asmussen • "European Encounter" • 1962 • Atlantic Records
Recorded July 2 & 3, 1962 in Stockholm, Sweden

The Selections:

The Tracks:

A1. If I Were Eve
A2. Winter Tale
A3. Slater's Theme
A4. Valeria
B1. Lonely Woman
B2. Django
B3. New York 19

The Players:

John Lewis - Piano
Svend Asmussen - Violin
Jimmy Woode - Bass
Sture Kalin - Drums

The Record:

John Lewis (Front Right) With The Modern Jazz Quartet

European Encounter illustrates everything that keeps us old school vinyl hounds scouring the racks at record stores. I would never have been introduced to such a fantastic little gem of a record had I not come across it while flipping through the bins at my local shop. I consider myself pretty well versed in the history of jazz and yet I was unaware this album even existed. One excellent result of the new wave of interest in vinyl for a dusty old crate digger such as myself (I've been haunting record stores for over 20 years) is that used record stores are making a comeback after it seemed they were a thing of the past, making for some exciting musical discoveries.

European Encounter finds the Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis teaming up with the Danish violinist Svend Asmussen in a collaboration that was much more than simply a spontaneous meeting. The liner notes recount how Lewis, as a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, first met Asmussen in 1947 while that group was touring Europe and the two musicians immediately hit it off. They spent an evening together conversing about and playing music all night at a party thrown for the band. They found they had much in common when it came to their approach to jazz and when the MJQ returned to Sweden in 1961 Lewis met up again with the violinist and made plans to record an album together the following year.

Svend AsMussen & Stuff Smith Performing Live In 1966

Most folks who have even a passing knowledge of jazz are aware of John Lewis and his many accomplishments, he spent the majority of his career as the pianist and musical director of the MJQ, and helped make that group one of the most critical and commercially successful groups in the history of jazz. Asmussen, however, is nearly unknown to most American jazz listeners, even though he is a star in his native Denmark. Along with Alice Babs and Ulrick Neumann, Asmussen was part of the Swe-Danes, a popular group that brought fame to all three members. From the jazz side of things he was greatly influenced by Stuff Smith and made a notable appearance at the 1967 Monterey Jazz Festival with fellow violinists Jean-Luc Ponty and Ray Nance.

European Encounter is a crash course in what the violin can bring to jazz when it sits in the right hands. The music definitely swings in places, but often in a complex fashion, much like Lewis' work with the MJQ during this period. When they're not going in an upbeat direction, Lewis and Asmussen utilize the violin's unique emotional resonance, in particular on a few of Lewis' compositions that had previously been released as part of film soundtracks, but especially on their interpretation of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" (the only non-Lewis original on the album). The tune was released a few years prior to this recording, and while it was greatly appreciated by those that could see Coleman's genius (Lewis obviously being one of those people), it would be a few years down the line before it was to be considered a jazz classic. Lewis and Asmussen's take on the song turns Coleman's desperate sounding version into a melancholy and introspective piece. It succinctly shows off what this pairing had to offer, and why it's a shame that the resulting album remains in relative obscurity in the greater history of jazz. Nonetheless it doesn't disappoint in any way, and is highly recommended to anyone who is willing to open their ears and minds up to ideas and sounds that were then, and are even today, considered outside the mainstream of modern jazz.

The Vinyl:

The Details: I scored a beautiful original stereo copy on the green and blue "white fan" label, another label that shouts out vintage jazz vinyl to me. Mono versions of this album would be on the similar looking labels with the orange and purple color scheme.

Price: I paid $10 at my local shop, which seems to be about the average sale price online for a stereo copy, with the mono version fetching a bit less.  

Sound Quality: The sound is great on this VG+ copy, and while these are no longer "deep groove" they still have excellent analog sound with lots of depth and separation of the musicians.

Notes:  European Encounter is one of those hidden gems that make hunting for vintage vinyl so enjoyable. Even though it probably didn't sell a ton of copies upon it's release, original copies do not seem to be all that rare and for the price you'll pay for a decent copy it's hard to imagine getting more musical enjoyment for the money spent.