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Daily Pilot

The dean meets the Delta

Joe Lewis, head of UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts, shows off blues chops on his new album.

By Rhea Mahbubani

5:53 PM PST, November 14, 2013

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Tucked into the corner of an administrative building, awash with the hush-hush of important work, an earth-toned room was occupied by furniture, books and knickknacks.

And there it lay — smack-dab in the center.

A curvy black case, held together by a medley of criss-crossing, bedraggled red and silver tape, sat on the carpet. An Eiffel Tower sticker bespoke time in France.

As Joe Lewis opened it with a click, his eyes twinkled at the sight of the guitar sheathed within. Propping up his foot on a nearby chair, the suit-and-tie-clad dean of UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts began playing a tune. His furrowed brow was replaced by a look of peace and an occasional burst of laughter as his fingers flew over the scratched and faded Martin O-16 New Yorker.

"If only this case could talk," said Lewis, reflecting on how it has morphed from hard to soft over the past 47 years.

If, indeed, the guitar's chords were the vocal kind, they'd tell stories about being inside recording studios with Lewis and John Chiodini, a composer and guitarist who has played with Paul McCartney, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and other stalwarts of the music world. On Oct. 1, the duo released "Three Black Bungalows," an eight-song vinyl and 10-song CD with a blues flavor, garnished with folk and classical sounds.

Today, Lewis and Chiodini are close friends, but 15 years ago, they were strangers.

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A deal over dinner

One afternoon, Lewis, then chairman of Cal State Northridge's art department, was seated in his office when art student Lauri Chiodini entered and saw his guitar.

"You play guitar?" she asked, with barely contained excitement. "My dad plays guitar. The two of you should get together and jam sometime."

Lewis nodded noncommittally and returned to the task at hand. The next day, Lauri returned with an invitation for dinner and her home address. A familiar face at her father's gigs, she was excited to connect the two and enable them to share the joys of music — something she'd always been surrounded by.

"Oh, did I mention, she never heard me play?" Lewis said, shaking with laughter.

True to his word, though, he arrived at the Chiodini household at 5:30 p.m. on the Thursday that followed. Upon being ushered in, Lewis noticed gold and platinum albums, cassette tapes and CDs peppering the walls. Although Lauri's parents, John and Ginger, served a delectable Italian dinner, Lewis had a tough time swallowing the food. All thoughts of dessert vanished when he learned that the senior Chiodini had been a guitarist for Natalie Cole's big band.

After the meal, Chiodini played some music before asking Lewis to do the same. Though unable to recall which two songs he selected, Lewis knew without a doubt that Chiodini followed along with ease.

"Afterwards, we both just sat there for a few minutes, and then John said, 'You should record that stuff,'" Lewis recounted. "Two weeks later, we were in E3 Studios, recording."

That was in late 1998. After three years, the project was interrupted when Lewis, originally from New York City, moved back East.

Returning to Orange County in 2010, he picked up with Chiodini where they'd left off.

"Joe's an original," said Chiodini, who contributed mandolin, bass, guitar and arrangements to "Three Black Bungalows." "There's only so many chords and so many notes, and what counts is the way someone decides to use that to express themself. That's what was so unique about him."

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A traveling musician

Lewis was a tot when his father, a vocalist with Harry Belafonte and the Belafonte Folk Singers, exposed him to music. At 5, he began playing the guitar and starring onstage in shows like "Porgy and Bess" and "A Christmas Carol."

The Lewises, both named Joe, also spent more than a decade performing in various iterations of groups — Lewis and Lewis, Lewis Eastman and Lewis, and Sleepy Joe Lewis — at concerts, union rallies and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.

After graduating from Hamilton College, Lewis traveled overseas on a Watson Fellowship. Toting a Samsonite suitcase and guitar, he played at beaches and galleries and on the streets with samba bands in Rio de Janeiro and Paris and with other musicians in Austria and the Philippines.

As an artist who works across multiple disciplines, Lewis sees music as "cathartic" — something to lean on "during the lean years."

"It also brings different kinds of people together," he remarked. "I didn't speak the language when I was in Brazil, but I'd pull out my guitar and immediately make friends. We could talk to each other; we could communicate.

"Wherever I was in the world, even when the music was very different from what I was playing, there was this bond that was created, and it's still created to this day."

Many of the numbers on "Three Black Bungalows" — the earliest was created in 1968 and the most recent in 2002 — were written while on the road, while others were inspired by daily life. It's not Top 40-esque music, Lewis said.

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Conjuring the Delta

The project includes songs that were penned long before Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani education activist, was shot by the Taliban or racial profiling accusations were lobbed at Barneys New York. But they get to the heart of exactly those types of issues.

For instance, "Open Mind" — a political critique that's neither left- nor right-wing — touches on the courage required to be a free thinker and how, in many places, people gamble with their lives to speak out against the norm. "Frankie and Johnny Got Busted" speaks about minorities who, while driving an expensive car, get pulled over simply by virtue of their identity.

"They are thought-provoking, provocative lyrics that are issue-based and come out from the folk music protest tradition," said Lewis, adding that his work showcases influences of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie as well as Big Bill Broonzy, Sun House and Muddy Waters. "The songs are hung on that Delta, Mississippi and semi-urban blues form."

Lewis, who sang vocals and played percussion and guitar, is accompanied in some places by Jimmie Wood on the harmonica, UC Irvine music professor Nicole Mitchell on the flute, Ed Vodicka on the accordion and Alexis Kelly on background vocals.

"First of all, 'Three Black Bungalows' reminds us to have fun and enjoy life," Mitchell said. "The music tells stories and takes you on a ride that's fresh and yet historic. It brings you back to the old tradition of old Southern front-porch guitar blues, and yet it speaks to modern-day challenges with an honesty that I think everyone can appreciate."

Mitchell completed her bit, which was improvised for an alto flute, in a single afternoon. The 46-year-old Long Beach resident believes this album marks a departure for Lewis.

"I think it represents a new dimension of Joe Lewis, the artist," she said. "What a unique voice he has. It also connects to his socially commentative visual art and will widen his audience of those who can be impacted by his message."

Lewis said album sales have been slow. The album — featuring cover art by Jay Vigon, whose clients include George Lucas and Warner Bros. Records — is available for purchase on iTunes, CD Baby and Spotify. He quickly clarified, though, that any funds earned are a bonus, that the endeavor was motivated purely by his love of the craft.

How have people responded? Positively, he remarked, but with surprise.

"I should be about 90 years old with lots of wrinkles, a few teeth missing and a 200-word vocabulary," Lewis said. "That's the kind of music it is."