Ramsey Lewis Trio at the Dakota, 1/19/11
I was putting my camera away and pulling out the records from my bag in between sets at last night's simmering Ramsey Lewis Trio performances, the second of two nights, at the Dakota Bar and Grill when I saw him visiting with some folks in the audience.
Suddenly he looked over to Geoffrey and I at the last table in the section and, pointing our way, said, "That's the record, Funky Serenity."
"Oh do you need a copy? You can have this one," I offered.
"Nah, I have it," he said. I was just trying to remember which one has 'Betcha By Golly Wow!' on it. I think it's this one. Yep, there it is. I really wanted to do it with these guys."
"It's my favorite one of yours," I told him. "But really you've made so many great ones I don't think there is a bad record of yours, is there?"
"I hope not," Mr. Lewis quickly responded with a laugh.
"Well, what do you think, are you going to try that song in the second set?"
"I guess we have to," he smiled, heading backstage.
One of the most popular pianists in modern jazz history, known for his pop approach and gospel-inspired soul jazz legacy of hits and standards, the legendary Ramsey Lewis, now 75, packed house at the Dakota for two wonderful and at times delicate sets that spanned his now six-decade career. For his Dakota show, which was the second of his two-night stand, Lewis played with some help from his latest trio which features the young Joshua Ramos on Bass and drummer Charles Heath, who absolutely dazzled. Touching on some of his well known hits, from "Wade in the Water" and "The In Crowd" on up through his latest forays into classically infused composition, Mr. Lewis still performs with the vibrancy and subtlety that has made him such a hallmark performer in the jazz world.
At times Lewis worked the crowd and band with surprise permutations of his classic pieces, always keeping his rhythm section on their feet.
"This is some new music I'm working on. These guys don't even know what it's going to be," he said, invoking startled looks from Ramos and Heath before slowly moving into more meditative piano work that allowed for them to eventually find their place.
An impressive drummer of the Max Roach variety, Charles Heath complimented Lewis with shimmers of cymbals and thumping accents from his drums, utilizing the rims and his percussive intuition in a perfect contrast to Joshua Ramos' very subdued bowing and melodic phrasing.
The word for the night was "subtlety" as the band ventured from classical, bebop, gospel and soul grooves that kept the full house clapping and heads bobbing in satisfied unison. While the music may have been improvisational, Ramsey commanded with his ability to naturally flow through tempos and melodies, allowing for the harmony and structure to envelop the audience's ears and providing comfort for the soul, demonstrated most satisfyingly on "Touching, Feeling, Knowing."
Finally, in the second set Ramsey changed directions in the middle of a reflective introduction into the band's take on the aforementioned Delfonics staple, "Betcha By Golly Wow!" to rousing applause, causing some in the audience to casually swoon and sing along. The original radio hit couldn't sound anymore smooth without Ramsey's lush arrangement and delivery.
Dubbed a "Living Landmark" in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois, Ramsey Lewis personifies the quality and innovation of American music and the progression of the styles of jazz, soul, and classical music he so perfectly inter-meshes. Those who were able to catch his mastery the last couple nights at the Dakota will be forever thankful for the music and feelings he inspires.
Critics' Bias: Of the dozen or so LPs I have heard from this man's 60+ catalog of releases, I have yet to hear a bad one.
The crowd: The cool, calm, and collected fans of jazz all fully acknowledging the presence of a living master.
Overheard in the crowd: "You tell 'em, baby!" quite loudly during a really quiet interlude.
Random notebook dump: "You could hear a pin drop in this place as much as you can feel the audience listening with all senses."
"Betcha By Golly Wow!" from Ramsey Lewis's Funky Serenity (1973)
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