Virtuoso Alexis Lombre is helping to keep jazz alive

The People Issue

Alexis Lombre.
Alexis Lombre. Courtesy of Alexis Lombre

At 22, Alexis Lombre has the work ethic of a veteran jazz star. The jazz pianist and vocalist should be exhausted given her touring schedule the past year — all while keeping up with the demands of her senior year at the University of Michigan (she graduates next spring). When not on the road, Lombre holds court at various jazz clubs in Detroit, including Cliff Bell's, where she held a two-year residency on Tuesday nights this year. And when she returns to her hometown of Chicago, she performs in popular jazz spots such as the Jazz Showcase with local heavies like saxophonist Rajiv Halim.

She's among a crop of young musicians such as Allen Dennard, Trunino Lowe, and Kasan Belgrave making a name for themselves in Detroit. Her debut album, 2017's Southside Sounds, exemplifies her songwriting expertise. It's obvious she's studied: Her left hand infuses the spirits of greats such as Bobby Timmons and Herbie Hancock, and her right hand channels the ghosts of Detroiters Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones.

Lombre grew up on Chicago's Southside. Her folks weren't musicians, but music was a big part of her household, where everything from R&B to jazz was available."I come from serious music lovers," Lombre says. "My grandparents had a huge love for jazz and passed it down to my mother, and that love passed down to me." Listening to her discuss her love of R&B musicians such as Earth Wind & Fire, Frankie Beverly and Maze, and Ray Charles with such enthusiasm, you'd swear she's of a different era. 

Lombre started taking classical piano at 9, and jazz around 12. She found her teachers were telling her conflicting techniques, so she had to choose which genre she would stick with.

"I definitely felt more like myself playing jazz," she says, "but I still love classical music."

She gives credit to her mentors, including Kansas City pianist Steve Million and Willie Pickens, a Chicago music legend, whom she studied privately with after receiving the Jazz Institute of Chicago Kiewit-Wang Mentorship Award.

Another key mentor in her development was jazz pianist Benny Green, an alumnus of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, who encouraged her to attend U-M. "He told me he was teaching at U-M, and I followed him," she says. "Then I heard about Ellen Rowe, who is a piano teacher there, and Marion Hayden, so when I saw all the women on the faculty, I was like this was a move I had to make."

Seeing the important role Detroit has played in jazz, as well as the huge female presence on the jazz scene, also affirmed Lombre's decision to move to Detroit. The Motor City has historically been a hub for accomplished female jazz musicians, such as pianists Terry Jean Pollard, Alice Coltrane, and Alma Smith — "musical mothers," as Lombre calls them. Those include bassist Marion Hayden and drummer Gayelynn McKinney of the Grammy-winning group Straight Ahead, who have also coached her. 

"It's really empowering having two strong women who support you and your ideas," she says. "Sometimes when I had older men in my group, I've had them still try and run my band a little bit because I'm younger and not really [embrace] my ideas."

Lombre says it's been encouraging playing with local musicians in Detroit because they're receptive to female musicians.

"When I was coming up in Chicago, the male musicians my age didn't know what to do with me partly because there weren't a lot of female mentors," she says. "In Chicago, especially during high school, I had to rely on the generation above me for friendship and support."

Since moving to Detroit in 2015, Lombre has grown by leaps and bounds, touring nationally and internationally. In January, she performed in South Africa with Chicago saxophonist Ernest Dawkins. She's also opened up for pianist Robert Glasper and saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Her biggest OMG moment so far has been befriending multi-Grammy winning jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, whom she met at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe last year when Spalding performed a tribute to pianist Geri Allen. Lombre asked Spalding to sit in.

"I'm like her annoying little sister," Lombre says with a laugh. "Our stories are very similar. We grew up rough, but luckily had a lot of programs that could invest their time in [us], so when I read her story, she showed me that I can actually pursue this."

Like Spalding, Lombre is musically eclectic — evident during a recent set at Cliff Bell's, where she opened with Michael Jackson's "I Can't Help It," then moved into Geri Allen's "Unconditional Love." One of her goals, she says, is keeping the "soul" in music alive, so don't expect her to just be tied down to jazz. She simply goes where the music leads her.

"I like playing all different types of music," she says. "I played a straight ahead jazz gig on Friday, then on Saturday I played an R&B and salsa gig, and on Sunday, I played an avant-garde gig. I love being able to go from different situations musically." You can catch Lombre next from 7-10 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 8 performing with Nomad at Blue LLama in Ann Arbor.

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Veronica Johnson

Veronica Johnson is a jazz journalist from Detroit. She has written for Detroit-based publications Metro Times, Real Detroit Weekly, Model D, as well as national publications Jazz Times and Downbeat. She is currently working on an oral history project documenting Detroit women in jazz music...
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