Ramsey Lewis: Heart warming
A three-time Grammy winner with over 80 albums to his name, 74-year-old legendary Chicago jazz-soul pianist/bandleader Ramsey Lewis has interestingly found new creative instinct as a composer with the current release of ‘Songs From The Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey’. Which - amazingly - marks his very first album of all-original, self-penned material.
A refined collection of 12 new, original songs that Lewis composed over a two–year period, said LP actually comprises the music from two world-premier performances commissioned by the revered Highland Park, Illinois-held Ravinia Festival. With eight of its tracks emanating from the score to the 2007 ballet ‘To Know Her…’ (which Ramsey wrote for the Joffrey Ballet Company), and the remaining four from 2008’s ‘Muses And Amusements’ suite - a work originally performed by Lewis with The Turtle Island (string) Quartet.
Additionally, with ‘Songs From The Heart’ largely representing Lewis’ first Trio recording in five years (he plays piano alongside bassist Larry Gray plus drummer Leon Joyce), the 12-track CD also marks his debut release for the prestigious Concord Jazz label. All of which a talkative-yet-serene-mannered Ramsey discusses with Pete Lewis from his native Chicago.
“Well, when my record company - Concord - and I began talking creatively about what we were going to do for my first album with them, they were like ‘Everybody at the label seems to think your music is uplifting, inspiring and from-the-heart. So why don’t we choose some songs with that in mind? WE’LL come up with some songs; YOU come up with a list - and we’ll COMPARE’”, begins a relaxed-sounding Ramsey: “So I went about the business of making a list of songs by people like Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye... But then, before I sent the list off, my wife was like ‘Wait a minute! What about the songs that you’ve been writing YOURSELF lately?’… You know, because she felt they fitted the bill, she was like ‘Why don’t you send them a reference CD of your new songs along with your list?’.”
“So I did just that... And, next thing I knew, the record company was on the phone saying they thought my new original material was just what the doctor ordered!”, he continues: “So we basically came up with the title ‘Songs From The Heart’ because of that idea of the music needing to be inspirational and heart-warming. And then, as this was the first of my albums where the whole record consists of songs I’ve composed myself, I felt that ‘Ramsey Plays Ramsey’ should become part of the title-theme TOO!”
So what’s the story behind all the songs featured on ‘Songs From The Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey’ being originally commissioned for two world-premier performances at Illinois’ Ravinia Festival? “Well, The Ravinia Festival takes place about 45 miles’ drive from Downtown Chicago”, explains Ramsey: “I mean, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays about eight concerts there throughout the summer. And, with the Festival running for three months, it also features a lot of OTHER classical musicians - as well as numerous jazz and pop performers. So in The United States it’s definitely one of THE places to play. I mean, the pavilion seats about 3,200 people; there’s a lawn that can hold up to 20,000 people; plus there’s two other buildings... And, with me having been invited to play Ravinia for the first time in the Sixties, since then I’ve played there almost every year. Then finally, about 15 years ago, I was invited to become the Artistic Director for Jazz at the Festival. Which is basically how my current relationship with Ravinia started.”
“Then, one evening over dinner in 2007, the President of the Festival said to me ‘You and The Joffrey Ballet should do something together’”, he relates with a smile: “And, while at first I thought he was just making pleasant conversation, it turned out he was SERIOUS! Because, next thing I knew, the award-winning US choreographer Donald Byrd was involved and I was writing the MUSIC! And, when the ballet company and I finally got to the point of performing the work together, the display of enthusiasm was AMAZING! I don’t know HOW many bows we took! Then, after that, there was a big reception for us - and so many people were coming up saying ‘Are you gonna RECORD these songs?’ that I finally thought to myself ‘Well, maybe you’ve GOT something there’… So, with the songs I then wrote for the FOLLOWING year’s Ravinia Festival - the suite I performed with my trio and The Turtle Quartet - also getting critical acclaim, I finally ended up RECORDING the songs from both performances. And, as I just said, Concord were so happy with them that they decided to put them on my new album.”
Born in Chicago, Illinois in May 1935, Ramsey grew up in the city’s Cabrini Homes housing projects (which also, interestingly, spawned legendary soul vocalists Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler). With his first appearances as a pianist being at the church where his father served as choir director, at 16 he joined his first jazz band, The Clefs - a locally-popular seven-piece that regularly performed at parties and college dances. Meanwhile, with the group later breaking up, Lewis’ next move was to hook up with two fellow former Clefs - drummer Isaac ‘Redd’ Holt and bassist Eldee Young - to form The Ramsey Lewis Trio. Who, after signing with Chicago’s iconic Chess label, released their first album - ‘Ramsey Lewis And The Gentlemen Of Swing’ - in 1956.
With The Ramsey Lewis Trio going on to impress mainstream jazz fans in the late- Fifties/early-Sixties with appearances at such world-renowned venues as New York’s Birdland club plus prestigious gigs at The Village Vanguard and Newport Jazz Festival, it was nevertheless by introducing then-contemporary soul/pop influences into their music that their 1965 LP ‘The In Crowd’ brought the threesome both a Gold-selling album plus the first of three Grammy Awards. Indeed, with said album’s US Top Five title track plus its follow-up singles ‘Hang On Sloopy’ and ‘Wade In The Water’ proving significant international breakouts, Lewis today recalls his mid-Sixties commercial heyday at Chess Records with fondness.
“Well, it was exciting - because that first hit (‘The In Crowd’) came from what was already our seventeenth album!”, he relates with pride: “I mean, our career had been steadily growing. Because each year we’d been playing to a few more people, and making a few more bucks than we’d made the PREVIOUS year. So we definitely felt we were on to something. But then, all of a sudden this huge hit was on the chart, and we were up there in the Top Five with Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Barbra Streisand... So of course our money just SKY-rocketed! And suddenly we were making five-to-ten times more than we HAD been! So I guess, while it did take time to get used to that, those are certainly days that I’ll always remember!”
With his mid-Sixties breakthrough having set the tone for the many successful fusions of jazz with pop and soul that would follow, Lewis quickly became an unusually influential musician. Meanwhile, the mid-Seventies found him arguably reaching even greater heights of creativity. When - by then signed to Columbia Records and leading a septet - he recorded the Gold-selling ‘Sun Goddess’ album with members of then-hugely-successful soul/funk outfit Earth, Wind & Fire. Which in turn found him experimenting for the first time with synthesized keyboards and horn sections. A path which, again, many others followed - even if Ramsey himself would later return to acoustic piano and, from the early-Eighties on, to the more intimate trio and quartet formats that he was most familiar with.
“Well, I’d always been an acoustic piano player and a lover of that sound”, he explains, as our revealing interview draws to a close: “But then back in 1974, for the sake of so-called ‘keeping up with music trends’, (Earth, Wind & Fire leader/producer) Maurice White was like ‘On this record, why don’t we experiment with the Fender Rhodes, electric piano and maybe a couple of synthesizers?’… So I said ‘OK’ - and of course that album ‘Sun Goddess’ became a smash! And so I guess - in terms of me putting out hit after hit and then going electric - along the way others got on the train, and it became part of an era in jazz. But, although it was me and Eddie Harris - and maybe one or two others - that kinda got that direction going, I don’t really take any responsibility for the evolution of the music throughout my career.”
“You know, I believed in what I was doing, I played what I played - and if others thought that was interesting, and so it therefore influenced them in some way, then FINE!”, he asserts: “But, you know, I’m too busy just being a musician to be ANALYSING all that! I just try and stay in the moment; I try to stay present; I try to stay with my own instincts… And to just feel what I’m feeling NOW - on this DAY, in this MONTH, and in this YEAR!”
Ramsey’s album ‘Songs From The Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey’ is out now through Concord Jazz
Words: PETE LEWIS
Words PETE LEWIS