Urban Knights II


Forget the shining armor and horse imagery, Urban Knights is all about capturing the kindred spirits of jazz and soul, and the playful energy which results when some of the greatest musicians in the rhythm and jazz kingdom come together to jam for a few days. Storied resumes and mile-long discographies of each member aside, the true essence of the star-studded ensemble Urban Knights is what legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis calls, “playing the kind of music that appeals to the urban contemporary crowd, but with performers whose roots go back to the great jazz tradition.”

The first Urban Knights project in 1995 was the brainchild of GRP A&R man Carl Griffin, who felt that an all-star band would be a great new vehicle for Lewis, who had released two popular albums on the label- 1992’s Ivory Pyramid, and Sky Islands the following year. Lewis’ choice of producer was Earth, Wind & Fire maestro Maurice White, who began his career as a jazz drummer with Lewis’ trio in the mid-60’s and who had produced Lewis’ mega-hit, Sun Goddess two decades later.

“Maurice knew how to perfectly balance the jazz tradition with an awareness of commercial music,” Lewis says.

Once the lineup of Lewis, Grover Washington Jr, Victor Bailey and Omar Hakim was finalized, they got together for an action-packed week of rehearsing and recording. The album’s success led to numerous road dates, the most notable of which was a special Oklahoma City concert in July of 1995, which benefited the victims of the tragic Federal Building bombing that spring.

To realize their vision of continuing the growth of Urban Knights to the next musical level, Lewis and White have chosen a new group of super talented musicians. They are acoustic guitarist and vocalist Jonathan Butler, saxmen Najee and Gerald Albright, long time Earth, Wind & Fire drummer Sonny Emory.

“When this idea first came to life, I thought it’d be a permanent group which would feature the same musicians over the years,” says Lewis. “But I realized that the best way to keep the music fresh and growing was to introduce new talent.

“So Maurice and I decided to change the concept just a little,” he adds, “letting Urban Knights be the coming together of great musicians of high visibility, guys who would like to perform together. Already well known-performers would keep the all-star idea going, but the only musical pre-requisite was that each member bring their unique flavor and spirit to the new project.”

Each of the current Knights more than fulfill that order.

Chicago native Lewis’ tenure as a best-selling recording artist reaches back four decades, beginning with the Gentlemen of Swing in the mid-50’s and continuing beyond hip pop-chart heyday in the mid-60’s, when his instrumental hits, The In Crowd, Hang On Sloopy, A Hard Day’s Night and Wade In The Water hit the upper reaches of Billboard’s Top 40 charts.

Combining equal facilities for the melodic pop ballad, cool jazz instrumentals and the polyrhythmic explosions borne from his native South Africa, singer/songwriter/guitarist Jonathan Butler has been a mainstay of both the contemporary jazz and r&b genres since his self-titled debut album in 1987. His most recent project is titled Head To Head.

Gerald Albright, maybe one of the most underrated contemporary jazz sax players, is a jack of all trades. His style may best be summed up by the title of his 1994 album Smooth. He’s also shown other sides of his talent by playing straight ahead on his own projects and others like Michael “Patches” Stewart latest album Blue Patches. For many years, Albright was the bass player for Anita Baker.

Multi-reed man Najee has become known since the late 80’s through a number of albums on EMI records, with the latest being Songs From The Key Of Life, a tribute to Stevie Wonder.

“Because the performances and personalities on II are so different, the album comes across as a totally fresh approach, even if the thread of bringing jazz to NAC and Urban radio stays the same,” Lewis explains.

Like any album featuring artists who have never recorded together before, there is a certain level of excitement and challenge, a sense of experimentation, and a loose feeling of overall fun as the principals bounce their musical ideas off one another.

“It’s a totally democratic process,” Lewis says. “You give, you take, you bring everyone together and watch how we interplay. When I play with my own band, I have a sense of what everyone is going to do next. Here, like the improvisational elements of jazz itself, more was left to chance within the overall melodic framework. Most musicians react to their environment, I was as influenced by Gerald, sonny, Najee and Jonathan as much as they were by me, reaching new places we have never been before. We were able to bring out creative ideas into an environment which basically thrived on the input of the individuals.”

Butler, in particular, brought a new twist in the Urban Knights soul sensibilities- an explosive world music vibe.

“When Jonathan came aboard, we encouraged him to add his personal touch,” Lewis says. “That added a lot of feeling and color to the album. It’s like a special seasoning.”

Once again keeping the atmosphere in the studio on an even keel was White, who says, “In many ways, working with my former boss Ramsey is a full circle effect for me. It’s always been about the mutual respect he and I share as musicians and artists, for surviving in the music industry for as long as we have.

“The basic approach in producing these records versus doing a Earth, Wind & Fire is the same-individualizing to deal with the specific strengths of the musicians involved,” White adds. “I like to mix a lot of live playing with some effective synthesized sounds, for a full bodied effect. I always focus on the interaction between the players, the magic that results from the camaraderie.: