The added anxiety caused by COVID has many feeling helpless, unable to sleep and concentrate, but it’s also helping others to further appreciate the importance of stillness, and even boredom. Ace jazz drummer/composer Larnell Lewis, who’s always placed a premium on mindfulness – the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment – falls into the latter category.
“Practicing [mindfulness] has definitely becoming a bigger part of my day since the pandemic hit,” he says from his Toronto home. “Awareness, stillness, being in the moment really helps me focus my energy and intention. COVID has forced many of us to look at what’s in front of us. My family is what’s in front me. As someone who tours a lot, I’m home now, so I’m seeing my children grow, I’m getting to know them.”
Living in the moment is so important to the incredibly innovative and in-demand drummer that he christened his first album In The Moment. In the liner notes of the record, which came out in 2018, Lewis wrote, “The compositions on this album are based on a collection of moments and memories that I’ve kept with me over the last 15 years. As I start this new journey, I’m reminded of a very important rule that can apply to many things in life: Strive to be In The Moment at all times.”
Lewis has enjoyed many mindful moments: as a member of triple-Grammy-winning Brooklyn band Snarky Puppy (nominated again for 2021); touring the world with jazz heavyweights like Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Gary Burton; being Musical Director during the Toronto International Film Festival’s premiere of the critically-acclaimed documentary of Quincy Jones, QUINCY, where he led the performances from the likes of Chaka Khan and Mark Ronson; playing Carnegie Hall alongside David Crosby; earning the 2004 Oscar Peterson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music (from Humber College), and the 2017 Toronto Arts Foundation’s Emerging Jazz Award (2017).
Lewis was first introduced to drums in church at a very young age. Mindfulness, he says, manifested itself during the services. “It was there that I realized the importance of being still, of being thankful for what you have, and appreciating the process of moving from the outside world to a place that centred me,” he says.
He confesses that whether it was playing in church, or in venues around the world, performing is a religious experience. “You can definitely affect how someone is feeling when they come to your show if the goal is to return to centre,” he says. “My hope is that their day is a little bit brighter after seeing me.”
In November of 2020, Lewis released Relive The Moment, comprised of six re-imagined compositions from his debut record that feature new, live drum performances. “I approached this record from the perspective of a drummer,” he says, adding that when he made In The Moment, he was “project managing.” Considering that the debut record featured nearly 20 Toronto jazz musicians, you can get an idea of what his job entailed.
“This one has a different flow,” says Lewis. “It gave me another chance to appreciate the music. and a new way to tell the stories behind each song.” “Coconuts” is one of those songs, a piece he calls “my version of talking about finding that Holy Grail.” At a show in Toronto last year, Lewis relished telling the story of the search for that perfect coconut. With a laugh, he tells me that he actually bought a special hammer that helps him pick just the right one.
The analogy he draws between coconut hunting and his approach to his craft is lovely. “It’s about taking your time,” he says. “You’re constantly studying, you’re persistent, and you keep going. There’s always that journey of learning something, and how amazing you feel when you get to that moment.
“The best advice I can give is, keep cracking more coconuts!” he laughs.