Lewis, a prominent pianist of Cuban decent, was nominated last year for a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist and Latin Jazz Album for his 2015 LP, Hoy y Ayer.
Consisting of some of Europe’s most skilled Cuban artists, the Cuban Swing Express combines a mix of traditional big-band swing and classic Cuban rhythms as well as some unexpected additions like cuts from Benny Moré, Michael Jackson, and the Rolling Stones in addition to original tracks by Lewis.
“I’m definitely in love with the Cuban Swing Express and amazed at the potential of this project," Lewis says. "We can dive in many directions and explore lots of different sounds… I grew up with some of the guys while I met others at school in Havana. We’re like a family.”
Lewis' musical background can be traced back to his father, Ricardo Gonzalez Duquesne, who directed the Orquesta de Música Moderna de Pinar del Rio in the '60s. As a child, Lewis encountered music everywhere he turned, sometimes voluntarily — other times, not so much.
“Imagine a whole band with four trumpets and a brass section playing for four or more hours in the living room of your house,” says Lewis. But, contrary to what that might do to most people's psyches, Lewis didn't mind. "It’s inspiring,” he says. “One of the sweet memories I have from that time is sitting at the piano with my father. I was 12 or 13, and he asked me to play 'La Sitiera,' a composition from the Cuban Rafael Lopez Gonzalez. He sang as I played the piano, and then my mother joined him while I did some homework. I love that memory.”
Lewis plays homage to both his childhood and his native Cuba with the Cuban Swing Express, but he aims to advance the music rather than just honor it.
“I try to see the whole band as one piece and, therefore, one sound but with different layers. Everything starts for me when I sit at the piano and start to think of what I’d like to listen to if I was in the audience,” Lewis explains. “I love surprises, so I always try to put some surprising element in the arrangement."
Ivan Melon Lewis and the Cuban Swing Express. 7 p.m. Thursday, September 8, at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; northbeachbandshell.com. Admission is free.