Ramsey Lewis Speaks
by Mark Ruffin
Publishers’ Note: Although JazzUSA hosts Ramsey Lewis’ home page, it had nothing to do with our decision to interview him and review his new release. We chose to do so because we think that Ramsey Lewis is one of the world’s Jazz greats, and the album is smoking. ‘Nuff said..
JazzUSA: Is there a theme to your new album Dance Of The Soul?
RL: If there is a theme, it sort of covers the musical landscape of Ramsey Lewis. There a song called Cante Hondo that is very much influenced by European classical music. Of course I spent many a year studying European classical music, and still enjoy listening to it and playing it. And totally across the spectrum from European classical music is a song called Mercy And Grace. It’s recorded with my church choir with my sister conducting, it’s my sister’s church, and it’s a stone gospel piece. Now in between, there’s Sub Dude, which is fun for me to play because I like all kinds of music and it’s a r&b piece written by the guys at Ivory Pyramid-Kevin Randolph, Frayne(Lewis) and Sterio Ever since I went to (Chicago) Wells High School, I’ve been exposed to American popular music. Up until Wells High School, it was gospel, classical music and by high school I was listening to Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson, so there was gospel and some blues. But in high school, it was multi-ethnic and I was exposed to our pop scene. The pop scene to me before that was Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra. So, one of pop artists, not then but now, that I enjoy listening to is Sting. And I much be honest, a couple of years ago I went to hear (his sons) Bobby and Frayne and Kevin Randolph. They were playing at the (Hotel) Intercontinental and they did Fragile. The song kind of stuck with me and I hadn’t thought about it but Frayne said you’ve always liked it why not try it. And it worked so well.
JazzUSA: What’s really interesting is that you actually have the guitarist who played on the original version of Fragile, Fareed Haque.
RL: Yeah, that was Frayne’s idea. He said didn’t he play on that with Sting? I thought, he sure did and we gave him a call and he said, I’ll be glad to do it.
JazzUSA: What about the other tunes?
RL: I wanted to show off, exhibit if you will, my love for straight ahead jazz and I heard this pianist Ryan Cohan who plays with trumpeter Orbert Davis. I really liked his playing and I liked the cd, but then a friend asked had I ever checked out Ryan Cohan, cause I was looking for some really good jazz songs.
JazzUSA: Weren’t you looking for some Latin-tinged songs?
RL: You’re right. On the drawing board, before I decided to just let whatever Ramsey feel come to the forefront and let that be the theme of the album, it was going to be a more Latin involved album. That’s why on the credits of the album I thank Monica DeLeon and Carlos Aqui Aquilla for their creative assistance. Anyway, my friend said check out Ryan Cohan. I said oh yeah, I’ve heard him. So he came down to the studio and I told him to bring some stuff. He brought the cd I already had and he said here’s a couple of songs that are sort of Latin that you may like, Dance Of The Soul and Lullaby. And I loved them and said I’m gonna do these. He said thank you and he was about to leave and I said “I like the way you write. I’ve been wanting to do a tango. I want to do a jazz tango. I want it to start rubato, with like a piano solo with no time and go into a tango rhythm, but a hip tango. Then go back to rubato.” He said “okay, I’ll be back.” He came back in about ten day and he’d written this beautiful song called Cancion. I told him I loved it and he was about to leave. (laughing) I said “wait, wait. I want to do a solo piano song that shows the fact that I’ve been in classical music but it’s interesting from the jazz perspective and it would be great if it had like a Spanish tinge to it.” I went to the piano and showed him a couple of chords he might want to use and another little idea he might want to use. He went away and came back with Cante Hondo. So there may be lurking in the background somewhere, or lurking in each of these tunes, some Latin, Afro-Cuban, or whatever want to call it, feel. I think there’s maybe not one song that somewhere in that song, there isn’t something Latin or Afro-Cuban.
JazzUSA: How did you and Frayne arrive at Teena Marie’s Portuguese Love?
RL: That was purely the team. The guys. We were talking about r&b, not only Sub Dude, but they suggested a song from the 70’s. Portuguese Love was suggested by Frayne and Sterio.
JazzUSA: Was that the only suggestion?
RL: No they brought forth others. I can’t remember the others. This is the one I liked best.
JazzUSA: Had you heard the original before?
RL: I had heard it, but completely forgotten it. But when they played it, it came back to my mind.
JazzUSA: Are you aware that Maynard Feguson covered it on an 80’s album produced by Stanley Clarke?
RL: No, I wasn’t aware of that. One of my favorite songs on the album, and I have a lot of favorites by the way, but in this particular genre, Love Serenade is a simple song that we were not going to use. Frayne thought that it was just too simple and wasn’t much to it. We started working on it and it turned out to be a charming tune to me.
JazzUSA: Now Ryan Cohan has to be one happy young camper.
RL: Ryan Cohan is elated. He gave a recital very recently and I went down. He really played well. I met his mother and since then, he and I met again and he’s going to do more writing. And yes he is a very happy person.
JazzUSA: Where did he get the Latin influence from?
RL: I certainly asked him. He said he’s a huge Chick Corea fan and of course, Chick Corea is a huge Latin fan. He figured if he was really going to get inside Chick’s head, that he had to get inside Latin and he had to do just that. He studied Latin music.
JazzUSA: It’s funny, Chick isn’t of Hispanic origins either.
RL: Yeah, he’s Italian, I think.
JazzUSA: I noticed you took half of Cohan’s publishing, was that a requirement for him to get the tunes on your album?
RL: No, no, no. It wasn’t a requirement at all. But with the association with me and the company that I have, we are international and he is not and he chose to let my company administer the songs, because I’m hooked up around the world as a publisher.
JazzUSA: Carl Griffin, Larry Rosen, Dave Grusin, Kent Anderson, I can go on and on, the whole old GRP staff is set-up somewhere else now at N2K. How do you feel at GRP now? Are you an orphan? Lee Ritenour certainly is an orphan, if not a lame duck.
RL: I feel wonderful. Tommy LiPuma has made me feel right at home. Things change. You must remember that I been through a few years now. I’ve been in the business now for a couple of years and I know things change. I’ve only been with three record companies in my whole life, but Chess, which I was with for 15 years, it changed. CBS, which I was with for 19 years, changed. After being with GRP for a short period of time I knew sooner or later it was going to change because when I went there, they had already sold the company.
JazzUSA: They were in the process of selling when you signed, right?
RL: No, they had sold to MCA. When I signed,. Larry Rosen was only on as an executive consultant to run the company. That was part of their deal, we’ll give you ten zillion, zillion dollars, but you’ve got to stay on to show us how you did it. So when I got there he was there and he said “oh, I’ll be around for at least five years.” I think he was around for about four.
JazzUSA: Have your old friends at N2K put out feelers?
RL: Yeah, in so many words, without raiding the old camp of artists, which I understand some GRP artists have already gone, it was let be known to me that if ever I was without a record home, that I could find one there. But, what with no pressure, nobody said “you know what, you ought to leave those m.f.’s.” Nobody came to me like that.
JazzUSA: Well GRP certainly have to be happy with that, and they have to be happy with this record.
RL: They are. When I turned it in, not only did I get many, many phone calls from people in the company, but Tommy LiPuma must have talked to me several times in the period of two or three days listening to the album and telling me how happy he is with the album. That it’s the kind of album that he was hoping that I would turn in.
JazzUSA: He left you alone too, didn’t he?
JazzUSA: What did he mean by the kind of album he was hoping for? RL Well, not only does the album have depth and integrity in my estimation with the choice of songs, but the album shows that I’m aware that no man is an island and in this business we call show, you need to show it to folks or people need to hear it. You need to get airplay and you need to get exposure and it’s that kind of album. Now when I do an album on the Impulse label, it’ll be aimed at a smaller crowd. But when you do an album on GRP, you know where they’re going. They’re going for all the marbles. But at the same time, as an artist, I think there’s a way to be both intelligent and creative at the same time being emotional and aware of the variety of people out there that buy records.
JazzUSA: GRP, since Tommy has been there, does seem to be less concentrated on GRP proper. He has Impulse, Blue Thumb and all these other little labels now, and the GRP records now seem to have a bit more integrity and maybe a little less NAC and a little more depth, would that be a correct assumption?
RL: I don’t know if less NAC would be the word I would use, but without using any words like that, Tommy LiPuma says “I want you to record what you feel, man and if you’re recording for GRP, you know what the label is all about. You know what we’re trying to do. If it’s something you’re going to do on Impulse, you know what that is all about and what we’re trying to do. But the bottom line is no matter which of these labels you record for, if it’s not coming from your gut, then it’s going to show up in your music and we want to move people.” He also said that we want product that’s going to be around. Jazz USA: Are you doing a record on Impulse
RL: I’m going to jazz interpretations of operatic arias ala Gil Evans and Miles Davis.
JazzUSA: Didn’t I read somewhere that you were against mixing jazz and classical music?
RL: Yeah, I don’t like jazzing up the classics. What I don’t like is to take a classical theme and just put a jazz rhythm up under it with no sensitivity or respect with what the song is about. The way I intend to interpret these songs is with the greatest respect for what the composer intended. When I say jazz up the classics, I use jazz very loosely when I say it that way. I’ve heard some people take rock and roll rhythms or r&b rhythms or shuffles and put a classical theme on top of it. I don’t respect that. If it takes away from the beauty of the piece, if it takes away from what the piece is all about, then why do that piece.
JazzUSA: Now with this Impulse project looming in the background, and with this Latin tinged album?
RL: And there’s the gospel album also on the board at Impulse.
JazzUSA: I heard you had cancelled that project.
RL: Oh no, that is going to happen.
JazzUSA: Okay, with all that looming, your band is being more challenged than they have been since you’ve had this particular band together.
RL: Right and I think one of the things that (drummer) Oscar Seaton, (bassist) Chuck Weeb, (keyboardist) Mike Logan, and (guitarist) Henry Johnson, like about my band, and I call it our band, because their contributions are major believe me, is that we have this kind of variety. I see the band more as a repertory band where we look at different kinds of music. We just don’t sit there and do r&b or pop or NAC or straight ahead or fusion, we look at different kinds of music. If it feels good, we figure it out and say hey, let’s make this our thing, let’s try this.
JazzUSA: This album, unlike any of your other GRP albums, is a truer representation of your band, you know what I mean? Before this album, if you heard your band live, your band was always deeper than the albums, more concrete more substance. It’s like your record has finally caught up with your band.
RL: I agree. The first two GRP albums, I was aware of what GRP was about and I might have put some things on the album that I play in person thinking that I was joining the GRP family and here’s my version or being a part of the GRP family. After so many concerts, people would ask ‘did you record that song?’ And I’d have to say no. After a lot of that, I realized I had to get what this band was about on record and I think we came really close this time. If you think the record sounds good, wait til you hear the band play it.Be sure to visit