Oct 3, 2009
Ramsey Lewis hasn’t recorded in a true piano trio format for almost five years. Not that he hasn’t been busy, mind you. Instead, he has worked with vocalist Nancy Wilson (Meant to Be and Simple Pleasures), redone some of his hits with a supplemented group (Time Flies), recorded a terrific live gospel album (With One Voice), and dabbled in funk (Don’t It Feel Good). He also recorded with his smooth-jazz band Urban Knights, leaving after their fifth record was released in 2003.
Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey marks a return to the instrumental format that made him a cross-over hit in the 1960’s. However, this music couldn’t be further from the R&B influenced sound of “The In Crowd” or “Wade in the Water”. Collaborating with his long-time sidemen Larry Gray (bass) and Leon Joyce (drums), the album marks the recorded debut of music Lewis composed for two collaborative concerts he played at the Ravinia Festival just outside of his hometown of Chicago. Eight of the pieces come from the score he wrote for the Joffrey Ballet Company, while the remainder was created for and performed with the Turtle Island Quartet in a concert entitled “Muses and Amusements”.
The CD is not an inconsiderable statement from Lewis, who many – this listener among them – saw treading water after a lengthy career of making exceptional music. Instead, this is trio music at its highest level. A band together this long works almost telepathically at their best moments. Listen to Joyce’s drum work near the end of “To Know Her is To Love Her”, or how he colors “Sharing Her Journey” with cymbals. Or how Gray works his bass in and around the others on “Touching, Feeling, Knowing”.
Lewis steps out alone on four tracks, most notably the romantic “The Glow of Her Charm”. At the age of 74, he has lost none of his ability to play long, melodic lines without becoming saccharine. At the same time, Lewis isn’t afraid to move into darker territory on “Exhilaration”, where he begins with a Monk-like piano line and then plays off the rhythm section with grace.
Lewis and his new label, Concord Jazz, are to be commended for making sure that this music is recorded for posterity, allowing an audience outside of the Windy City to enjoy it. Here’s hoping that Lewis will continue this level of artistic output, and that we haven’t heard the last of this trio.