Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ramsey Lewis, "Appassionata"

Ramsey Lewis led one of my favorite jazz trios of the 1950's and 1960's, the appropriately named Ramsey Lewis Trio. Playing with bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, he recorded one of the most popular jazz records of the 1960's, "The In Crowd," which has the distinction of being a Top Ten hit single and also a Top Ten hit album. His interplay with Young and Holt was remarkable. Lewis was influenced by classical music and rhythm and blues, creating a unique and different sound. One of the first records the trio made in 1956 was a jazzy version of the "Habanera" aria from Bizet's opera "Carmen." Their version of the pop hit "The In Crowd" was a funky and catchy mixture of soul-jazz that found the live audience clapping along. But as Lewis's records gained in popularity, the jazz quotient went down. By the 90's, he was making smooth jazz records, devoid of the talent he had earlier brought to his piano playing.

But in 1999, Lewis returned to the acoustic jazz trio setting for a fine record, "Appassionata." (It's one of my CD's I've had for ages, but haven't gotten around to listening to it until recently.) "Appassionata" shows that Lewis still has the goods on piano, and it mixes classical and gospel influences. He performs versions of Puccini pieces, and a medley of gospel songs, "A Moment Spiritual." Lewis is backed by Ernie Adams on drums, and Larry Gray on bass, who are both fantastic. For anyone who is a fan of Lewis's classic trio recordings, this is a welcome addition to those recordings.

Unfortunately, there are many Ramsey Lewis Trio albums from the 50's and 60's that have not been reissued on CD. But one that has is "Down to Earth," from 1959. It's an excellent jazz trio album. Young gets to solo on "Decisions," and the Trio does a stellar version of "Billy Boy," which I think was recorded by every jazz trio in the 50's. (Miles Davis included a version of it on his 1958 album "Milestones," and he doesn't even play on it!) If you like piano trios, give Ramsey Lewis a try.

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