A publicity photo showing jazz master Ramsey Lewis.
Ramsey Lewis comes from a different time. It was a time when musicians produced record albums. He has had something like 80 of them (that is not a misprint: 80), going back to “Ramsey Lewis and the Gentlemen of Swing,” over 60 years ago. He comes from a time when jazz musicians could sometimes have hits on the Billboard charts. Lewis has racked up 17 hits in the top 100 chart, with “The ‘In’ Crowd” famously peaking at #5. Lewis, a native of Chicago (where he still lives), has seven gold records and three Grammy Awards, and was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
At 82, Lewis still brings an infectious smile to his playing and his interactions with the audience. His joy in making his music, and in sharing it, is evident. A packed audience at the Dakota heard Lewis play through many of his best known works, supported by the other members of his current quintet: Henry Johnson on guitar, Joshua Ramos on upright and electric Bass, Charles Heath on drums, and Tim Gant on keyboards. Some members of the group have been playing with Lewis for decades, and the familiarity showed in their seamless interactions. All were on the top of their form, with Heath and Gant in particular doing an excellent job of raising the drive of the songs.
It is not a coincidence that many of Lewis’s best recordings are live: not only “The ‘In’ Crowd”, but also “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Hang on Sloopy”, and many others. The live recordings display the energy that Lewis’s groups could give to the audience, and the audience back to the musicians. Those recordings really pop. This same energy among the musicians, and between the musicians and audience, was very much evident at the Dakota last night – not least when Lewis had those present help with the vocals on “Sun Goddess” (simple lyrics, as he pointed out: “way oh, way oh”).
The set started with “Tequila Mockingbird” (Lewis emphasized that the title was not his idea, but came from someone at Columbia Records), and included “Hard Day’s Night”, Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”, and John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord.” There were well-done call-and-response exchanges at different points between Lewis and Heath, and between Johnson and Ramos. For once, even the seemingly obligatory long drum solo was entertaining.
When the Quintet finally reached “The ‘In’ Crowd,” it was almost anti-climactic. One can understand the mixed feelings any artist has with his or her biggest hit, which ends up being played (especially in Lewis’s case, given how long he has been on the road) likely every night, and overall literally thousands of times. However, even here – and throughout the evening – there was a wonderful sense of all the music (Lewis’s own compositions, classical works, gospel, and pop and jazz classics, etc.) that is drawn upon in each improvised performance. For example, in the midst of “The ‘In’ Crowd”, there were samples or riffs of George Benson’s “On Broadway” and the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”; and during the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere”, there was a melody line from Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star”.
Like the other great explorers of jazz improvisation, Lewis seemed always to hit just the right “wrong” note and play the essential off-beat. Clean lines of classical or pop music would suddenly verge into glissandos or pounded chords worthy of Jerry Lee Lewis, yet it always seemed just what was needed.
Ramsey Lewis and his Quintet will be at the Dakota for two more shows this evening. It is well worth braving the elements to see this grandmaster of jazz live.