Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Ramsey Lewis: Heart warming

Ramsey Lewis
Ramsey Lewis Ramsey Lewis Ramsey Lewis Ramsey Lewis

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 âSongs From The Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramseyâ. 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 twoâyear 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 âTo Know Herâ¦â (which Ramsey wrote for the Joffrey Ballet Company), and the remaining four from 2008âs âMuses And Amusementsâ suite - a work originally performed by Lewis with The Turtle Island (string) Quartet.

Additionally, with âSongs From The Heartâ largely representing Lewisâ 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.

âWell, 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 âEverybody at the label seems to think your music is uplifting, inspiring and from-the-heart. So why donât we choose some songs with that in mind? WEâLL come up with some songs; YOU come up with a list - and weâll COMPAREââ, begins a relaxed-sounding Ramsey: âSo 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 âWait a minute! What about the songs that youâve been writing YOURSELF lately?â⦠You know, because she felt they fitted the bill, she was like âWhy donât you send them a reference CD of your new songs along with your list?â.â

âSo 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!â, he continues: âSo we basically came up with the title âSongs From The Heartâ 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 Iâve composed myself, I felt that âRamsey Plays Ramseyâ should become part of the title-theme TOO!â

So whatâs the story behind all the songs featured on âSongs From The Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramseyâ being originally commissioned for two world-premier performances at Illinoisâ Ravinia Festival? âWell, The Ravinia Festival takes place about 45 milesâ drive from Downtown Chicagoâ, explains Ramsey: âI 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 itâs definitely one of THE places to play. I mean, the pavilion seats about 3,200 people; thereâs a lawn that can hold up to 20,000 people; plus thereâs two other buildings... And, with me having been invited to play Ravinia for the first time in the Sixties, since then Iâve 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.â

âThen, one evening over dinner in 2007, the President of the Festival said to me âYou and The Joffrey Ballet should do something togetherââ, he relates with a smile: âAnd, 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 donât know HOW many bows we took! Then, after that, there was a big reception for us - and so many people were coming up saying âAre you gonna RECORD these songs?â that I finally thought to myself âWell, maybe youâve GOT something thereâ⦠So, with the songs I then wrote for the FOLLOWING yearâs 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.â

Born in Chicago, Illinois in May 1935, Ramsey grew up in the cityâs 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, Lewisâ next move was to hook up with two fellow former Clefs - drummer Isaac âReddâ Holt and bassist Eldee Young - to form The Ramsey Lewis Trio. Who, after signing with Chicagoâs iconic Chess label, released their first album - âRamsey Lewis And The Gentlemen Of Swingâ - 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 Yorkâs 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 âThe In Crowdâ brought the threesome both a Gold-selling album plus the first of three Grammy Awards. Indeed, with said albumâs US Top Five title track plus its follow-up singles âHang On Sloopyâ and âWade In The Waterâ proving significant international breakouts, Lewis today recalls his mid-Sixties commercial heyday at Chess Records with fondness.

âWell, it was exciting - because that first hit (âThe In Crowdâ) came from what was already our seventeenth album!â, he relates with pride: âI mean, our career had been steadily growing. Because each year weâd been playing to a few more people, and making a few more bucks than weâd 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 Iâll always remember!â

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 âSun Goddessâ 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.

âWell, Iâd always been an acoustic piano player and a lover of that soundâ, he explains, as our revealing interview draws to a close: âBut then back in 1974, for the sake of so-called âkeeping up with music trendsâ, (Earth, Wind & Fire leader/producer) Maurice White was like âOn this record, why donât we experiment with the Fender Rhodes, electric piano and maybe a couple of synthesizers?â⦠So I said âOKâ - and of course that album âSun Goddessâ 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 donât really take any responsibility for the evolution of the music throughout my career.â

âYou 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!â, he asserts: âBut, you know, Iâm 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 Iâm feeling NOW - on this DAY, in this MONTH, and in this YEAR!â

Ramseyâs album âSongs From The Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramseyâ is out now through Concord Jazz

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