Ramsey Lewis – Songs From The Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey (2009)

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by Pico

Chicago’s own Ramsey Lewis is part of a surprisingly sturdy fraternity of major jazz pianists who first started making records more than half a century ago. Like Horace Silver, Cecil Taylor, Hank Jones, Ahmad Jamal and Paul Bley, Lewis’ resilient popularity comes from doing things he’s done for a long, long time. So, OK, maybe Lewis has crossed over to the pop realm a time or two, but at the core he remains bop-based pianist with crisp, distinctively poetic style that’s agreeable to a wide cross section of listeners.

Lewis recently signed with Concord Records and last September put out his first record with the label, Songs From The Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey. When I first heard the record, without reading the liner notes, I had assumed that the songs represented contemporary renderings of some old Lewis compositions that I haven’t heard of before (with more than 80 albums under his belt, it would be easy to miss them). But this project had a higher purpose: Ramsey Lewis was to play “heartfelt, lyrical and inspirational” music using entirely his own compositions that he has not recorded previously.

Songs From The Heart, was performed in Lewis’ best settings, an acoustic trio for eight tracks and solo piano for four. This album was also produced by him. Thus, this album marks in many respects a departure of prior formulas of success for Lewis, who invariably relied on others for material, production and concepts. Concord allowed Lewis to run whole show, and make a record that 100% reflects his musical personality.

While these twelve songs have all been composed only in the last few years, they weren’t written for specifically for these sessions: seven were written for the Joffrey Ballet, most of which premiered in 2007. Four songs were commissioned by the Ravina Festival for its 2008 project Muses and Amusements, and one more, “Clouds In Reverie,” premiered at the same festival in 2006 but also performed by Joffrey.

As most of these songs were written to be danced to, there’s a rhythmic quality to them, and Lewis brings his considerable classical background to bear as well.

The final crucial component for Songs From The Heart is the personnel. For the trio performances, Lewis relies on the same musicians he used for his last trio album Time Flies from five years prior: bassist Larry Gray and drummer Leon Joyce. Gray is a local Chicago guy like Lewis and one currently one of the town’s finest bass players, a first call sessionist who has played for everyone from Joe Henderson to Chet Baker and Larry Coryell. Joyce has been in Lewis’ trio since 2001, but had spent more than two decades in the Marines, where he honed his skills playing in large and small ensembles alike as a drum major.

Together, Gray and Joyce form a tight rhythm section that confidently handles the chores like Lewis’ elaborate, Latin-inflected swinging melody that makes up “To Know Her Is To Love Her.” Gray pulls out a bow for a cello solo that sings while Lewis ever so subtly inserts bass notes while carrying the melody. Gray’s own solo concentrates on the higher timbres of his drum kit, accentuating that Latin feel. When they are in supporting roles, one can feel Lewis drawing energy from the foundation they lay for him, not so much playing the piano keys as he is delicately dancing his hands across it. Lewis employs a different rhythmic style for the Big Easy sway of “The Way She Smiles.” But even with Gray supplying a second-line beat, Lewis makes the song swing with assuredness.

“Rendezvous” is light on its feet and frolics to a samba beat; Joyce and Gray have a funky rhythmic pattern going for “Touching, Feeling, Knowing” for which Lewis supplies some thoughtful lines. “Exhilaration” is an epic piece with a dark theme and a nicely flowing melody that Lewis made into a showcase for Gray.

The four solo piano pieces are spread out across the record, which I think does well to keep the mood varied even as they fit well alongside the trio tracks. The aforementioned “Clouds In Reverie,” “The Glow Of Her Charm,” “Long Before She Knew” and “Watercolors,” all have whimsical, meditative quality to them, and “Watercolors” in particular is really more classical in nature than jazz.

Ramsey Lewis is clearly proud of his latest album when he beams that “Looking back at all the music that I’ve written over the last few years, I think I’m coming up with something unique. I think I’m developing a style.” Sounding every bit seventy-four years young, the full blossoming of Lewis as a composer is a remarkable and welcome Indian summer in a long and successful career.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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