Urban Knights – Urban Knights III

Urban Knights IIIUrban Knights III
Urban Knights

After four decades Ramsey Lewis can remember a time in the 1950s when he was a young, eager Chicago musician looking for new opportunities to express himself. Reminded of the Stan Kenton quote, “When you get to the top, don’t forget to send the elevator back down,” Lewis has long sought to give back to the community which fostered his own creative development.

The first two Lewis-led Urban Knights projects on GRP featured the pianist joyfully fusing R&B and jazz with all-star contemporaries. His beautifully realized plan for URBAN KNIGHTS III was to encourage and cultivate relatively unknown talent by assembling a band of outstanding young jazz musicians from the Chicago area.

Although URBAN KNIGHTS III features guest performances by contemporary jazz stars Dave Koz, Earl Klugh and Fareed Haque, every track is complemented by some of the city’s brightest young performers. In addition to the core band of keyboardist Kevin Randolph, bassist Sharay Reed, drummer Calvin Rogers and drum programmer Stereo, the collection features performances by percussionist Alejo Poveda, the all-female vocal group The Staples (cousins of the famed Staple Singers) and vocalists Tami and Hardeman. Lewis didn’t have to look far for these great talents; most of them have deals with Lewis’ production company Ivory Pyramid.

Collaborating with his father on six previous projects, Frayne Lewis took the reins on URBAN KNIGHTS III as producer and arranger. With the new lineup and fresh talent, Ramsey Lewis feels strongly that the Urban Knights will continue to grow with each future project. ‘I was fortunate in the 50s that my first trio was encouraged by legends who’d come to town like Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. Just as I felt anointed by their ‘touch,’ it’s a joy to see these young, promising players so ecstatic to have an opportunity like this. Seeing the excitement in their eyes as we worked on tracks reminded me so much of myself. It was a way of giving back, but also elevates Urban Knights from just another gathering of well-knowns to a showcase for the stars of tomorrow.”

The first Urban Knights project in 1995 was the brainchild of then-GRP Records executive Carl Griffin, who felt that an all-star band would be a great new vehicle for Lewis, who ultimately released four popular albums from 1992 through 1997 (IVORY PYRAMID, SKY ISLANDS, BETWEEN THE KEYS and DANCE OF THE SOUL) on the label. 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-60s and who had produced the pianist’s hit Sun Goddess two decades earlier. The commercial success of the project allowed the original lineup – Victor Bailey, Omar Hakim and the late Grover Washington, Jr. – to do numerous live dates, most notably a special Oklahoma City concert in July of 1995 which benefitted the Governor’s Victims and Families Relief Fund in the wake of the tragic Federal Building bombing that spring.

In 1997, Frayne Lewis and Maurice White produced URBAN KNIGHTS II, which featured Gerald Albright, Jonathan Butler, Najee and drummer Sonny Emory. Originally, Lewis had no intention of using any name artists to play on URBAN KNIGHTS III. But when Dave Koz and Earl Klugh were booked as guests on Jazz Central, the jazz show Lewis hosts on the BET cable network, Lewis couldn’t resist asking. “Still,” he points out, “(guitarist) Fareed Haque lives in Chicago, and aside from Dave and Earl, the entire project is the music of Chicago through and through.”

While nine out of the eleven tracks on URBAN KNIGHTS III are originals, no true hometown homage would be complete without a cover of Robert Johnson’s Sweet Home Chicago, which Lewis turns into a lively, percussive piano jam. Koz’s edgy tenor drives the slamming funk of Dancing Angels, while Klugh and Haque blend their individual guitar masteries (Klugh on acoustic, Haque on steel string) on the gently grooving The Gypsy. Keith Hardeman’s smokey vocals soar on Strung Out with Sharay Reed’s funky bass line. Other key tracks are designed as showcases for Lewis’ protogees. The gospel flavored Do You Still Think About Me? features The Staples, and Tami demonstrates a powerful and passionate vocal presence on a cover of 10cc’s I’m Not In Love. The last recorded track, Midnight In Madrid, finds Lewis and company on a festive world beat excursion featuring Latin, world beat, African, Spanish and Caribbean flavors.

“It’s rewarding to be at this point in my career and I have no desire to rest on my laurels, and have nothing to prove to anyone either,” he says. “This allows me the freedom to do what I want to, and has given me the opportunity to try a whole new approach to the Urban Knights concept. It’s been a tremendously rewarding experience.”