Ramsey Lewis and Grover Washington, Jr. UNPLUG

Ramsey Lewis and
Grover Washington, Jr. UNPLUG

By Mark A. Ruffin, Jazz Editor

Two of contemporary electric jazz’ most successful stylists, pianist Ramsey Lewis and saxophonist Grover Washington Jr, played a concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on the last day of February that would have shocked the most staunch traditional acoustic jazz purists. The open minds who subscribe to Duke Ellington’s righteous theory that there are only two kinds of music-good and bad- will not be surprised at all to learn that these two old friends dazzled the sold out house with their dazzling musicianship.

Howard Reich, the prestigious Chicago Tribune jazz critic, blasted the Chicago Symphony last fall when they announced this program as part of their jazz series. If he showed up, he had to be swayed by the prowess that each man showed, not only in controlling their instrument, but in the dissection of the chosen material. After the show, Washington said, they had nothing to prove they were just out to have a good time.

“I don’t get to do this very often, except when my friends like Ramsey Lewis call. We just wanted to have some fun and we did.”

Just because these guys have had million selling records, they’re frequently attacked by the jazz police and the be-bop hoi-poi. Lewis was a staunch disciple of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum before a fateful night in the early 60’s at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington D.C. altered his style. Lewis had recorded over a dozen acoustic albums before the live one he did at this club. The pianist needed one more tune to play to complete the album when he decided to play one of the hits of the day. That song, The In Crowd, did better than the original on the pop charts and earned Lewis his first Grammy award.

Most of Lewis’ explorations into jazz afterwards contained elements of pop music, but as he proved at Orchestra Hall, he never stopped practicing to the O.P. and Tatum records. He came out alone and exposed at the piano and started the three hour concert with Billy Strayhorn’s classic Lush Life. He dived and dipped in various tempos and played around various themes of the famous composition. At one point coming to a complete stop before his left hand broke into a stride pattern that would have made Erroll Garner or Fats Waller proud.

Then Washington came out and by the time he stated the theme of Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday, true jazz lovers knew they were in for a treat, while those expecting music from the Live At The Savoy, Urban Knights or any other previous Washington/Lewis collaboration may have been disappointed. But it couldn’t have lasted too long, for before Washington was through with his magnificent solo performance, he displayed such a high degree of musicianship and showmanship that both fragments of the audience were wildly applauding his effort.

Washington, of late, has been doing his be-bop woodshedding in public, as his excellent appearance on the recent Milestones release Dream Sessions; The All-Stars Play Miles Davis Classics attests to. Like Lewis, the saxophonist too has had chart-topping and Grammy winning million sellers, with Mister Magic and Just The Two Of Us being the most enduring. But, of his last four albums, two of them Then And Now, and All My Tomorrows have been acoustic oriented. From the former, Washington and Lewis next played a duet on In A Sentimental Mood ala Ellington and Coltrane.

Lewis’ quintet was then brought on to accompany these two masters on a lively treatment of Dave Brubeck’s standard In Your Own Sweet Way. While Washington’s band members may not get a chance to play straight ahead much, Lewis’ charges have to be prepared to play any kind of music with their boss. He may have concentrated his recording effort on electric music, he never strayed from the acoustic piano, and in live performance, he has recently had his band play with big bands, orchestras and other challenging settings.

Guitarist Henry Johnson shined immediately on this song, and added supple support and electrifying solos throughout the night. The other members didn’t get to solo as much, but each got his turn in the spotlight. In fact, without dispute, the biggest hand of the night went to young drummer Oscar Seaton who wowed the crowed on a long multi-tempo romp of a solo on yet another Ellington classic, Caravan, at the close of the second set.

They closed the first set with Urban Samba, a Lewis composition that appeared on the Urban Knights album they recorded together. While that may have satiated those looking for the contemporary side of these guys, they didn’t dip into their fusion bag again until the encore number when they closed the show with an extra-long version of Mister Magic. Even then they examined that Washington mega-hit with a hint of the avant-garde. Oh, it was still funky, and provided sound designer, Michael Logan with his only chance to solo on his electric keyboard, but the simple chord changes didn’t seem enough for Lewis and Washington. As they challenged both the band and the audience to rethink the way they hear Mister Magic as well as the intstrumentalists themselves.