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Simple Pleasures by Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson

Last year’s Meant to Be found pianist Ramsey Lewis in the affable company of veteran songstress Nancy Wilson. Their collaboration produced a pleasant and satisfying piece of light jazz confection. With Simple Pleasures, Narada attempts to duplicate that success, but it bears repeating what F. Scott Fitzgerald once said about second acts in American lives: There are none.

While Meant to Be included standards like "Peel Me A Grape" and Van Morrison’s "Moondance," Simple Pleasures, clearly aiming for a wider audience, has Lewis and Wilson performing Adult Contemporary fare. "In The Name of Love", a cover of a DeBarge tune, seems custom fitted for radio play. Canned horns and synths abound, nearly crowding Lewis out of the arrangement. Wilson’s oh-but-of-course delivery never seems out of place, but neither does she seem particularly engaged by the feather-weight material. The rest of the album isn’t quite as insubstantial, but it never attains what Lewis and Wilson achieved on their previous album. The trio tracks, such as Lewis’s take on Lennon and McCartney’s "In My Life" and a cover of the seventies soul chestnut "Ooh Child," fair better than those with Wilson. There’s less effort expended in making the performances radio-friendly, and Lewis gets a chance to stretch a bit. Still, Lewis seems straight-jacketed by his own formula. It’s as though having produced instrumental jazz hits during the sixties with versions of "The In Crowd" and "Hang On Sloopy," Lewis feels obligated to grind out jazz readings of pop material, whether the material warrants closer examination or not. Any sixties tune seems grist for Lewis’s mill, as "Slippin’ Into Darkness" demonstrates. It was a bold and commercially successful move when Lewis did it the first time, now it feels tired. The one attempt at performing a jazz standard, Wilson’s reading of "God Bless the Child," proves to be the biggest misstep on the album. Wilson, who is usually quite playful in her interpretations, becomes extremely reverent on the Billie Holiday classic. Both she and Lewis seem stiff and uncomfortable with the material. Perhaps Holiday’s shadow is too long for Wilson to escape.

This is not to say that Simple Pleasures is not a pleasant listen overall. It is, for the most part. Those listeners who enjoy jazzy material that makes few demands on the ear will find much to appreciate here. Lewis’s trio plays with restraint and good taste, as usual. Sadly, Narada did not include a personnel listing in their promotional packet, so one can only assume that this is Lewis’s regular band. In any case, they play well together, especially when unencumbered by Llew Matthew’s ponderous horn arrangements. In the end, however, the CD smacks of a commercially contrived follow-up to a much more artistically satisfying predecessor.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson
  • CD Title: Simple Pleasures
  • Genre: Smooth Jazz
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Narada
  • Tracks: In The Name of Love; Slippin Into Darkness; All This Love; In My Life; Give Me Something Real; Lost Up In Loving You; Ooh Child
  • Musicians: Ramsey Lewis (piano), Nancy Wilson (vocal)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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