Eric Lewis, a 26-year-old New Jersey native, won first prize and $20,000 Sunday night in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz's International Jazz Piano Competition at the Kennedy Center.
A panel of jazz artists composed of Geri Allen, Herbie Hancock, Danilo Perez, Eric Reed, Randy Weston and Cedar Walton chose Lewis from a field of 12 semifinalists who participated in the annual event over the weekend.
Lewis joins a jazz honor roll that includes such former Monk competition winners as Marcus Roberts, Joshua Redman and Jacky Terrasson.
Best known in recent years for his work with Wynton Marsalis, Lewis first made a strong impression on the judges and the audience during the semifinals Saturday afternoon when he unleashed a fast and dazzling version of "Cherokee" that reflected the influence of Art Tatum's daunting virtuosity.
But at the finals Sunday night, Lewis took a different tack altogether, slowly unfurling a ruminative solo arrangement of "Blue Monk." The freely improvised 12-bar blues was dotted with tremolo passages, leisurely turnarounds and sly rhythmic suspensions.
"Green Chimneys," another Thelonious Monk tune, quickly followed, with Lewis imaginatively evoking the composer's fondness for hammered tones and resounding dissonances before bringing the piece to a hushed close.
Afterward, Lewis said the marked shifts in drive and dynamics were planned.
"I knew that I was going to take 'Cherokee' at a breakneck tempo, so when that went over I knew I could take the tempo down to let [the judges] know that I don't always need to show that kind of technique."
The strategy paid off, said Weston, one of the judges most impressed by Lewis. Listening to him, "I thought of the way Monk approached the piano--nothing specific, more spiritual. I can't explain it, but it moved me tremendously."
Asked what he planned to do with the prize money, Lewis confessed he hadn't given the matter much thought: "Right now, I just know that I'm going to give 10 percent of it to the church."
Other winners were Orrin Evans of Philadelphia, second prize and $10,000; Jacob Sachs of Monroe, Mich., third prize and $5,000; and Sam Yahel, a native of Germany now living in New York, fourth prize and $2,000.
All of the pianists benefited from the alert support provided by bassist Christian McBride and drummer Gene Jackson.
James Carney, who lives in Los Angeles, won the institute's International Jazz Composers Competition.
The performance finals, whose guests included Vice President and Tipper Gore, were followed by a gala concert featuring Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, Patrice Rushen, Grover Washington Jr., Arturo Sandoval, special guest Stevie Wonder and other performers.
The show, co-hosted by Bill Cosby, who was in hilarious form when he wasn't reading from a script, was nearly always entertaining if seldom inspired.
It ended with an exuberant, full-cast tribute to Hancock, who received the institute's Maria Fisher Founder's Award.