|Ramsey Lewis at the Dakota, 5/20/12. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)|
Last night I saw Ramsey Lewis in concert at the Dakota Jazz Club. It was a terrific show. I’ve seen Ramsey in concert once before, at Orchestra Hall in 2009. The concert at Orchestra Hall featured Lewis in the familiar piano trio setting that made him famous. Last night’s show featured his “Electric Band,” with Tim Gant on keyboards, Henry Johnson on guitar, Joshua Ramos on bass and Charles Heath on drums. The band was incredible, providing great solos and also great support for Lewis’s playing. Despite the name of the band, Ramsey himself played mainly a Steinway grand, and a little bit of Fender Rhodes electric keyboard. Lewis, who will turn 77 next week, still has an amazing touch at the piano. His playing sounds so effortless and is so easy to listen to. Lewis brings a lot of things to the piano when he sits down to play. He started playing music in church at a very early age, so there’s a lot of gospel in everything he plays. He was classically trained, and he brings a very impressive technique to his ballad playing. As evident from his 1960’s hits like “The In Crowd,” and “Hang on Sloopy,” Lewis knows how to play rhythm and blues and pop/rock material. All of these different elements come together in his piano playing, and they often manifest themselves in the same song. It’s wonderful to hear him play, and after seeing him in concert twice, I would say he is definitely underrated as one of the all-time great jazz pianists.
It’s clear that Lewis still really enjoys playing, he has a big smile on his face most of the time, and I could see him reacting a lot to what his band was playing. Henry Johnson on guitar had a great solo on the opening song, “Wade in the Water.” Johnson’s smooth tone and style are reminiscent of Wes Montgomery’s playing. In fact, “Wade in the Water” brought so much blues and funk heat that I wasn’t sure where Ramsey could go next. He played a softer ballad for his next song, which was a wise choice as I’m not sure much could have topped “Wade in the Water.” There were a few times during the concert when Ramsey played solo, or accompanied by just Joshua Ramos on bass, and these were lovely, quiet moments to hear. Lewis played an interesting medley of the John Coltrane song “Dear Lord” and his original song “Blessings,” which was very lovely. Lewis also played a medley of gospel songs that was wonderful, and ranged from quieter, more moving pieces to hard-driving blues. The gospel medley also featured a lot of interplay between Lewis and Charles Heath on drums, as they traded “fours” back and forth. Eventually Heath got to play a lengthy drum solo, which was very fun to hear. For the first encore Lewis played a very long version of his 1974 pop/R&B hit single “Sun Goddess.” He played it mostly on the Fender Rhodes, and man, was it funky! Lewis brought a lot of heat to his playing, and it was definitely funkier than the original version. It was really fun to hear the whole band dig in to this song. Lewis clearly enjoyed the warm reception he got at the Dakota, as he and the band came back for one more encore, “The In Crowd.” Lewis and his original trio, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, scored a surprise hit single and album in 1965 with this version of Dobie Gray’s hit single. “The In Crowd” was both a Top Ten single and album, and it was the rare jazz cover to outsell the vocal version of the song. In his original version, Lewis played “The In Crowd” as a more up-tempo song, and he found the groove in it. His version last night was great, and it’s clear he still enjoys playing the song.
Ramsey Lewis has great style, both in how he plays the piano and in how he dresses. One thing I noticed last night is that whenever Ramsey got up from the piano to say something, he would button his jacket. Which is exactly what you’re supposed to do when you’re wearing a jacket. Lewis has aged very well; he looks like he’s about 50, not 76! It was a really wonderful show, and it’s great to see a jazz veteran still having fun on stage and being energized by the music he’s playing and the musicians he’s playing with.