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Ramsey Lewis: The Great Performer

Piano-bass-drums were the weapons of choice for the highly celebrated trio headed by Ramsey Emanuel Lewis whose performing career alone spans over five decades of recordings, 80 plus recordings, seven Gold records, three Grammys, and the nationally syndicated radio show "The Legends of Jazz." The 74-year-old jazz composer and classical-trained pianist performed August 13th at Orchestra Hall with a surprise for all in attendance an evening of pure blues, Chicago style!

Ramsey Lewis, a Chi-Town native, talked briefly about the blues at the evening’s opening. "Americans know about the blues. We go to the blues and embrace the blues. We laugh, talk and sing about the blues," said Lewis. "The blues may not always be blue. It can be very contemplative," he added.

When one thinks of the blues we think of folk songs and spirituals. Musicians like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williams, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and Muddy Waters come to mind. Guitars, harmonicas and fiddles are instruments of choice.

Even those who sanged gospel -- The Staple Singers, Al Green, Edwin Hawking Singers, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin -- were strongly influenced by the blues. So some audience members wondered "what did Ramsey know about the blues." And most importantly, was there going to be any jazz performed on this particular occasion, considering Ramsey Lewis is a legendary jazz master.

Introducing the trio, Irvin Mayfield, Artistic Director of jazz for Orchestra Hall, laughed as he said, "I called Ramsey a year ago and told him that he was going to play in Minnesota at Orchestra Hall. I told him he was going to play the blues. Then I started calling him everyday, two months ago, to remind him that he was going to play the blues."

Recalling Ramsey Lewis history, he recorded and had much success with "Wade in the Water," which contained jazzy harmonies deeply rooted in the blues. Even though Lewis is classically trained, he had long recognized the beauty in primitive music that possesses soul piercing emotional power. Afterall, Chicago was a powerhouse for blues musicians, especially those who migrated from Mississippi and nearby areas. Surely, Lewis must have jammed with some of these musical cats on occasion.

"Satchmo," Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and "Jelly Roll" Morton recorded with blues artists back in the mid-20s. I wondered if Lewis ever recorded with any noteworthy blues musicians, since his musical repertoire is so extensive? But since there was no question and answer forum as we see at other theaters like the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts or historical video footage presented on the genre on the musical giant serving as a backdrop during his performance, audience members were left to find out intricate details about his musical involvement in the genre through the gift of listening.

Onstage the Ramsey Lewis trio slipped from spirituals to swing. From "Wade in the Water" to an original composition "To Know Her Is To Love Her" to "Conversation" these jazz masters - Larry Gray on bass, Leon Joyce Jr. on drums and Ramsey Lewis on piano feverishly displayed levels of musical sophistication that was mesmerizing to jazz aficionados. Their relaxed nature was potent and their elegance earnest. Their performance was free and unpretentious. It was as graceful if they were breathing air. Like a prayer, the music formed a tapestry for a deeper state of consciousness.

The collaborative brilliance a sincere and genuine love for blues-reached out in a variety of musical flavors capturing bits of classical, pop and jazz. The message driven via the blues is that you don’t have to obliterate from the fundamentals in pursuit of a more glamorous form of music.

Even though he had mastered blues melodies on pieces like "Exhilaration" the free flow of melody poured through. Ramsey Lewis kept the fire and rhythmically danceability over swing rhythms, showing him as a true jazzman at heart. Larry Gray’s bass solos were colorful and enchanting. Gray embodied sounds through the bow and utilized skillful pizzicato techniques while Ramsey Lewis was soulfully swinging on piano.

Leon Joyce, Jr. was a very generous drummer displaying incredible expertise at giving the arrangements dramatic flair. Joyce never let his right hand know what his left hand was doing while he created three to four different rhythms, all at one time. Amazing in creating sounds and texture, he employed fingertips, palms and various parts of his arm into his drumming routine. Mallets, brushes and drumsticks were obvious back ups. His percussion artistry truly left the audience in a state of awe!

Interestingly, the large Scandinavian crowd hardly moved or barely clapped at the genius of their music unfolded on stage. Perhaps the stage overshadowed the event in this massive hall.

But I didn’t think so. The most intriguing part of the evolution was occurring in front of us as we sat back and merely watched the masters play. At various intervals, the trio was so animated. It was fascinating to see just three performers on this huge stage, keeping me enthralled and in awe with the majesty of their combined artistry. I was wowed at their wisdom and was grateful for candid communication between songs while listening to the power of their musical ideas expressed abstractly.

The evening was a truly magical night, all about a natural feeling that celebrates freedom and its journey through the world of the blues. In the end, the trio received the ultimate reward from the Minnesota crowd a standing ovation. Not one, but two.

Twin Cities vocalist, Bruce Henry opened the show. His line-up included Brian Nicholas on piano, Darryl Boudreaux on percussion and washboard, Chris Bates on bass and Kevin Washington on drums. Their performance of "Embrace Me" was delightful and Nina Simone’s "Rising Sun" enchanting. I was especially taken by Darryl Boudreaux’s performance on the washboard on the tune entitled "Jump the Broom " truly enthusiastic and energetic.

Overall, it was a marvelous evening of music and true blues from the master of jazz, Ramsey Emanuel Lewis and company.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ramsey Lewis
  • Concert Date: 8/13/2009
  • Venue: Orchestra Hall
  • City State Country: Minneapolis, MN
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