Live in the Clubs: Young musician blends folk, classical — but now on piano

Cristo Lewis still gets asked to play Johnny Cash songs at his shows. And if he has his acoustic gui

Cristo Lewis still gets asked to play Johnny Cash songs at his shows. And if he has his acoustic guitar with him, he’ll play them.

Lewis, now 11, made his name on the Capital Region music scene as one of the area’s youngest folk and country singers at the tender age of 7, playing acoustic guitar and singing songs by Cash, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle and others. He landed a few choice gigs, including an appearance on the local stage at LarkFest in 2008.

These days, though, Lewis — born Cristo Lewis Harijan — is focused on classical piano, and listening to more Ludwig van Beethoven and Evgeny Kissin than Cash or Dylan.

“I still do some guitar, but I started playing piano about two years ago, and as I learn it more, I’ve been playing less and less guitar and more and more piano,” he said recently, sitting with his father, Hawazin Harijan, outside McGeary’s in Albany. “It’s kind of hard to explain, but I just like the keys and stuff. It’s just easy to play once you get the hang of it.”

Cristo Lewis

and Hawazin, with Amanda Rogers, M.R. Poulopoulos

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hudson River Coffee House, 227 Quail St., Albany

How Much: Free

More Info: 596-0959,

First recording

Lewis’ first album, the 12-track “Knock Turn,” released early this year, focuses entirely on classical piano pieces, including original compositions such as “Nocturne.” He’s been performing more and more as a solo piano artist, although he hasn’t forgotten his folksy roots. Often he’ll play two sets — one classical, one on guitar.

“He does a pretty mean ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ on piano,” his father said. “And a couple of Guns ’N’ Roses tunes, like ‘November Rain.’ And he’ll still play some of the more folky stuff.”

On Saturday night, at the Hudson River Coffee House, Lewis will again combine both sides of his playing. He will first perform a solo piano piece, then join his father’s eponymous rock band, Hawazin, for a set. The bill also features songwriters Amanda Rogers and M.R. Poulopoulos.

Hawazin itself is a new project, started by Harijan and guitarist Jason Tash. The quartet also has a new album, “Alone,” released early this year. Although Lewis won’t play on all of the band’s songs, he has written parts for many of them, and has even helped his father compose music to songs.

“Quite a few people have said that [Lewis] has perfect pitch,” Harijan said. “Using Cristo’s musical knowledge as a resource, sometimes I’ll get a tune in my head and I’ll hum it, and I’ll say, ‘Cristo, what am I humming?’ And he’ll be able to sit down at the piano and play me what I’m humming, and then tell me what the chords are, and then he’ll essentially teach me how to play the song that I’m thinking of.”

“I sort of just take what I would write into a classical piece and simplify it,” Lewis added.

He took to piano just as quickly as he did to guitar. He has always been interested in classical music — one of the first pieces he figured out how to play on guitar was Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” About two years ago, he went to his first piano lesson, tagging along with his younger sister Rhiannon.

“My dad asked me one day if I wanted to go, and I said sure — to watch,” Lewis said. “They asked me [at the lesson] if I wanted to try it, and I did and I liked it, so I started taking lessons.”

Initially, Harijan was surprised at how quickly Lewis took to the instrument.

“It was sort of a last-minute thing — I said, ‘Hey, do you want to come along and see if this is something you want to do too? You guys can both do lessons at the same time,’ ” Harijan said. “And at first he was like, ‘Oh, Dad, I don’t know; do I have to?’ And I was like, ‘Come on, just come and check it out.’ And he just picked it up really quick.”

Getting into it

Soon, Lewis was figuring out Beethoven pieces such as “Ode to Joy” and “Turkish March,” and delving into the work of pianists such as Glenn Gould, Kissin and Franz Liszt. “I really want to play [Liszt’s] ‘La Campanella’ one day, it’s just my hands aren’t big enough for the stretches,” Lewis said.

“Knock Turn” is a full-blown classical album, but in the future Lewis will be working on an EP of pop-rock songs he’s composed on piano. But for the most part, he’s more comfortable without lyrics.

“I find it easier to compose because, when I try to think of words in my mind, my mind goes blank,” he said. “But the classical music just comes naturally. I can just sit down and play it without having to think real hard about it.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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