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Blues Brothers

UCI’s Joseph S. Lewis teamed up with musician John Chiodini on a labor of love 15 years in the making.

Joseph S. Lewis strums his vintage New Yorker Martin guitar.

Joseph S. Lewis was the arts dean at Cal State Northridge when he started his own music album. Slow-forward 15 years. Now he’s dean of Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UC Irvine, and he’s finally finished it. And, wow, is he excited it’s all come together at last—blues, alternative blues, acoustic blues, a bit of folk influence.

But more about that later. First, back to Northridge-it was 1998. Student Lauri Chiodini came to see him about a project and spotted his guitar, an old New Yorker Martin he’d had since he was 13. She told him her dad played too, and invited him for dinner and a jam session with her father. Dad turned out to be John Chiodini, one of the most respected studio musicians in the country, who toured with Natalie Cole and Paul McCartney. He liked Lewis’ work and suggested they record something. “Two weeks later, we were in the studio,” Lewis says.

But after just a few recordings, Lewis’ father, a former vocalist with Harry Belafonte, became ill on the East Coast. (In earlier years, they traveled the country as a singing act—Lewis and Lewis.) To be near him, Lewis took education jobs in New York, serving in dean positions at Fashion Institute of Technology and Alfred University.

He returned West following his father’s death in 2009 and accepted the highly prestigious dean position at UCI’s arts school. “I called John and said, ‘We have to finish this.’” Chiodini was anxious too. They added noted musicians for cameo spots: Jimmy Wood, Alexis Kelly, a number of alternative bands, then flute player Nicole Mitchell and Ed Vodicka on accordion. Lewis and Chiodini appear on the jazzy red cover, though the album is called Three Black Bungalows. (“No particular meaning,” Lewis says. “It’s just a name I like.”) You can find it on, iTunes, Spotify and at Amoeba Music in Los Angeles. There’s one instrumental; Lewis sings the other songs. He calls it “contemporary acoustic blues guitar with thought-provoking, witty lyrics, saturated by politically rooted overtones.” That’s an academic for you.

So what’s next? YouTube, of course. Lewis is putting together what he calls a music movie to go with one of his songs. “I’m not Justin Timberlake,” he notes. “But I think these are very good songs people can relate to.”