Ramsey Lewis, jazz legend: Something Else! Interview

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Pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis, a jazz and crossover legend five decades in the making, has recorded some 80 albums, received seven gold records and earned three Grammy Awards in a career that’s seen chart-topping successes like “The ‘In’ Crowd,” “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade In The Water.” After successfully transitioning in and out of fusion and smooth jazz over the years, Lewis in later years has been commissioned to compose a jazz ballet, helped found a jazz mentoring program and written several pieces for string ensemble and orchestra.

Lewis joined us for an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown to discuss his signature hit “The ‘In’ Crowd,” the influence of European classic music on his work, a breakthrough collaborative moment with Maurice White (who would later found Earth Wind and Fire) and the 2007 NEA Jazz Master’s latest recording Take Another Look, which marks a long-awaited return to the electric piano …

NICK DERISO: Give us some insight into Take Another Look, the new project that became your 80th album release. It’s been called a journey through songs that have meant a lot to you over the years, like Stevie Wonder’s legendary “Living for the City.” What went into selecting that track?
RAMSEY LEWIS: Not unlike most European classical music and the great American songbook, there are jazz compositions that deserve reconsideration or repeated interpretation. Probably even more so in jazz, because our interpretations are ‘of the moment,’ therefore we no doubt see things differently now than we might have years ago. So in putting together the electric band, I went back and listened to some of the things we had performed during the Sun Goddess period and was interested in seeing what these new young musicians currently in the band would do with them — and I wasn’t surprised to hear their contribution to the pieces. I thought it important to include these on the album.

NICK DERISO: Obviously, staying close to your roots is important. You formed your first trio with a couple of your earliest musical jazz partners, and still live in the town of your birth, Chicago. How has having that support system enriched your life?
RAMSEY LEWIS: Chicago is a wonderful city in many ways, but especially in the arts. We have a variety of institutions consisting of the Lyric Opera, Chicago Symphony, Art Institute and Joffrey Ballet. We also have a wonderful blues community, great gospel music and all kinds of pop and rock ’n’ roll. It is a very supportive city, in that the audiences are never challenging. Their attitude for me is, as it always seems to have been, ‘OK, well show me what you got.’ Chicago is home.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Over the course of Ramey Lewis’ ‘Taking Another Look,’ there’s often little deviation from the old ‘Sun Goddess’ template. And we’re cool with that.]

NICK DERISO: It might be hard for today’s generation to imagine, but your 1965 hit “The ‘In’ Crowd” shot all the way to No. 2 on the U.S. pop charts. Why doesn’t more jazz cross over anymore? What changed? The culture or the music?
RAMSEY LEWIS: Jazz was never a big crossover music. There were only a handful of us that were fortunate enough to have the kind of exposure that allowed us to cross over to other genres. One of the best examples would be Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” There are hardly any radio stations playing jazz these days, and the support from record companies is not the greatest. The industry also plays its part in the change. It was easier in my day, because rock ’n’ roll, pop, jazz and blues were clearly defined. Now, all of these categories have many sub-categories and the definitions have become so much more rigid.

NICK DERISO: Is it true that the impetus for recording “The ‘In’ Crowd” as a jazz instrumental came from a coffee shop waitress? What led you to that piece of career-making music?
RAMSEY LEWIS: Three of four days before we were about to play the Bohemian Caverns in DC, the guys and I were in our regular coffee shop killing time between shows — because back then, you’d do 4-5 shows a day with an hour break in between. We had become regulars at the coffee shop and the waitress had come to know us. We were talking about the album we were about to record live at the Bohemian Caverns, and we still needed one more song to complete the set. It was to be our 17th album and we already had the meat and potatoes. As we were recording our 12th or 13th album, we decided to start including a ‘fun’ song and this was the missing element. The waitress said, “Hey, why not play Dolby Gray’s new song, ‘The In Crowd.’” One of us put 10 cents in the jukebox and we all listened to it. It had a nice simple melody and it was exactly the kind of song that would round the album out. The rest was history.

NICK DERISO: Describe the way the trio’s sound changed with the addition of Maurice White, who later left to form Earth Wind and Fire. Later, you reunited for the hit “Sun Goddess.” Did you envision the kind of sweeping success he would have as an R&B star?
RAMSEY LEWIS: When Maurice White joined the group, he brought a very unique and exciting style of drumming to the trio. Not only was he technically proficient, he was very aware of all of the various styles of drumming that had gone before and had developed a unique style that was not only articulate, but very creative and soulful.

RAMSEY LEWIS: Jazz has obviously been a force in your life. Tell us more about the way that European classical and gospel music have contributed to your sound.
Lewis: I didn’t realize until 10 years ago that gospel and European classical music played a big part in my development. People would often tell me that they could tell my music anytime they heard it on the radio. I was puzzled. When I gave it some thought and took a look at the past and all of the things I studied and was interested in musically, I realized the effects of studying jazz and European classical during my impressionable years. When one reaches deep down inside to improvise, he or she can only come up with those experiences that have been there from earlier times and with me it was my active involvement in gospel and classical music. When I started playing jazz — which meant making up ideas, improvising, creating on the spur of the moment — the music people heard was sort of a tossed salad of gospel, classical and jazz. That style is what you’re still hearing from me today.

NICK DERISO: More recently, you have begun to compose large-scale works. Is that an outgrowth of your interest in classical styles? How does working in this broader format differ from your more familiar small-band jazz sessions?
RAMSEY LEWIS: The large-scale compositions that I’ve been working on are an outgrowth of a performance I did five or six years ago with the Joffrey Ballet when I was invited by Welz Kauffman, CEO of the Ravinia Festival, to write a score for an hour’s worth of music. The deal was that if I wrote the music, they would get the choreographer. That was my first experience of writing a long-form work that was cohesive. The performance was widely accepted and, of course, some of that energy was due to the collaboration between the ballet company and the trio. However, it meant a lot to me to have that kind of acceptance for this new form I was exploring. That night, my son Frayne said, “Dad, this is the first time you played a concert without the hits and you still got standing ovations.” That was meaningful and I thought about that a lot. That gave me other opportunities to write long-form works and I began using other musicians, in addition to the trio, because the next one I wrote was with the Turtle Island String Quartet. I was to play that night with Dave Brubeck, and I found out that Dave was bringing his big band so I got the idea to do something larger and out of that came “Muses and Amusements.” After the concert with the Turtle Island Quartet, I was invited again by Welz to honor Abraham Lincoln on the 200th anniversary of his birth so for that, I ended up writing a piece for 23-piece orchestra for the length of the evening. Later, the Kennedy Center requested a performance of that show and PBS taped and broadcasted it across the United States. I’ve found a certain comfort zone in writing not only for the trio and or/quintet, but also for larger groups.

NICK DERISO: You return to playing the Fender Rhodes on Take Another Look, after years of playing acoustic piano. What led to that decision? Were you brought back to the instrument by the music, or had you been itching to return to electric sounds?
RAMSEY LEWIS: Taking Another Look and the Sun Goddess Tour happened almost suddenly. The idea of including electric instruments in performances and on the album started with the suggestion of Rio Natsume in Japan when we were there in October 2010. Almost immediately after I returned home, there were suggestions from those in the United States for the same thing. Then after the holidays, I decided to have a jam session/rehearsal with the guys and try it out. The whole thing happened within a span of about 90 days. By no means have I abandoned my love for the nine-foot Steinway Grand. We just now include electric instruments, as well.

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