Ramsey Lewis Unplugged
by Mark Ruffin
While at the top of the smooth jazz game, musician/broadcaster Ramsey Lewis has changed horses in the middle of the stream and gone back to his acoustic jazz roots with the release of his new trio jazz album “Appassionata.” It’s very doubtful that the album will get a warm smooth jazz reception across the country, although the Chicago station where he serves as morning man, WNUA-FM has immediately added Lewis’ cover of the Minnie Riperton classic “Close Your Eyes And Remember.”
“I’ve never considered myself a smooth jazz artist,” Lewis commented when asked about his musical change in direction. “I consider myself an artist that plays the music that I feel at the particular time. Fortunately, ever since I’ve recorded, my music seems to have had broad appeal and that does include acceptance with smooth jazz audiences.”
Ten years ago, when Ramsey Lewis decided to try his hand at radio with the help of his friend and broadcast legend Yvonne Daniels, the musician was then without a record contract and the term ‘smooth jazz’ had yet to catch on.
Since that time, the 64 year-old perpetually youthful looking pianist has made six albums for GRP, a record company built on the smooth jazz genre, and just this year Lewis, the morning man at WNUA, won one of radio’s highest honors, Radio & Records’ magazine Personality of the Year award. However, the cohesion that his day gig in smooth jazz and his recording career once shared have come to a musical crossroads with this album that can be summed up as a classically-tinged acoustic jazz record with a gospel touch.
“I don’t do radio. I’m a musician,” Lewis said insisting that radio had never been a decision making factor in his tenure at GRP. “I’m with a new company now, Narada, and I was looking for something different to do, and sometimes what’s old is new again.
“I’ve been doing a (electric) quintet now since 1975,” said Lewis who also is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show called “Legends Of Jazz.” “I really hadn’t done the trio thing in 24 years. “It’s not so much the format anyway, but the music you play. There are as many smooth jazz piano trios as there are straight-ahead acoustic jazz trios. I didn’t want to do the usual, get a few standards, a couple of originals and just blow. I wanted to have some sort of sound or concept to the music.”
It was during the last Christmas holiday at the Cuban International Jazz Festival in Havana where Lewis unveiled his new sound and his new trio. The drummer is Ernie Adams, probably best known for his work with the late Art Porter, and Larry Gray, one of the most accomplished bassists in Chicago. The music he chose for “Appasionata” includes two classical pieces, two selections from operas by Puccini and three gospel oriented originals.
A re-working of “A Song For Jan,” a tune Lewis wrote for his wife that originally appeared on his 1993 “Sky Islands” album, was supposed to round out the album until a friendly ghost from the past appeared and insisted on a presence on “Appasionata.”
“I called the very first rehearsal and we played all the music and were done practicing,” Lewis explained. “The rehearsal was over and Larry says, ‘you’re not going to do any Charles Stepney?’ And he starts to play “Close Your Eyes And Remember” on the bass fiddle. He played not only the rhythm part, but he knew the melody.
“That opened up a whole other thing,” Lewis continued. “I didn’t know he could go in that direction with such passion, so I had to include my third version of “Close Your Eyes And Remember” on the album.
Ironically, it was Stepney who produced a number of Lewis’ last trio albums in the 70’s. The late producer is also credited with discovering Minnie Riperton, on whose very first album, “Come Into My Garden,” “Close Your Eyes And Remember” first appeared on.
“At the next rehearsal, Larry brought in a couple more Stepney tunes that I didn’t even know he wrote,” Lewis continued. “Stepney touched people that I wouldn’t even think of. He inspired and influenced a lot of people, so I’m not totally surprised, but I always thought of Larry Gray as a straight-ahead kind of guy until we started talking about Charles Stepney.”
Since his death in 1976, Ramsey Lewis has done a number of tunes written or inspired by Stepney. Before his death, the Chicago writer/producer was instrumental in the success of a wide range of talent including Earth, Wind & Fire, the Dells, Eddie Harris, Howlin’ Wolf and the Burrell Company advertising agency.