Pianist, presenter and all-round keyboardist Ramsey Lewis has enjoyed a long career that has spanned some six or more decades, and the first part of that has been the subject of a retrospective on Cherry Red’s El label, with two single CD compilations covering the Chess years between 1960 and 1967. Hopefully, a third volume in that series will complete the late 1960s Chess sessions when Charles Stepney took over arranging duties.
This new anthology takes up the story post-1970s when Leonard Chess had first sold the independent label to corporate America, and long-time artists such as Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal and others left the roster. In Lewis’ case, he had already hit upon a winning musical formula of blues-inflected piano over a strong R & B beat, both reworking soul and pop standards of the day, as well as composing some of the catchiest piano grooves on 45. Initially the formula was barely tampered with, and a debut recording in 1972 for the major, ‘Upendo ni Pamoja’ flirted between straight ahead acoustic trio and electric piano. Two singles were released, with, ‘Slipping Into Darkness’ finding a funky groove, and was a minor R & B success. from the same year, a second album surfaced, ‘Funky Serenity’, and the B-side to the single, ‘What It Is’ is a glorious stomper in a not dissimilar vein to, ‘The In Crowd’, or ‘Sloopy’. For the third outing from 1973, a decision was made to reinterpret the Chess classics in a new setting and this proved to be something of a mixed blessing. On the positive side, ‘Wade In The Water’, sounded fine with electric piano and a slightly funkier backbeat. on the negative side, however, a reggae-tinged reading of, ‘Hang On Sloopy’, was ill-conceived and messy, and the same can be said of, ‘Hi Heel Sneakers’. More experimental, yet sounding more authentic was the 1974 album, ‘Solar Wind’, and a Caribbean-flavoured, ‘The Everywhere Calypso’, actually works extremely well, sounding like a proto-type Monty Alexander, and with a nod to Sonny Rollins. A slowed down instrumental take on The Isley Brothers’ hit, ‘Summer Breeze’, is pleasant, if unspectacular, but things were about to take a major upwards turn in the career of Lewis.
A new collaboration began in 1974 with the Earth, Wind and Fire group, produced by Teo Macero who famously was the producer of the classic Miles Davis albums on Columbia, and from this the first and most spectacular album, ‘Sun Goddess’, would become one of Lewis’ most loved recordings. The title track has an immediate pop appeal with its funky uptempo beat the hallmark of the earth, Wind and Fire sound, and over this Lewis revelled with his keyboard licks.
The eight and a half minute tune was a top twenty R & B chart hit and just outside the pop top forty, a commendable feat for an instrumental. Three other examples of this fine are showcased here including the funky ditty from which the anthology takes its title. A second collaboration with the band succeeded with ‘Don’t it feel good’ from 1975, this time with Charles Stepney returning to arrange. A beautiful reworking of, ‘That’s The Way Of The World’ was a highlight and Stepney co-wrote several songs including, ‘Don’t It Feel Good’. with Lewis now openly experimenting with synthesizers.
A third Earth, Wind and Fire produced album arrived in 1976 with the African influenced, ‘Salongo’ and from this, ‘Brazilica’ remains a perennial favourite, featuring percussion instruments that Maurice White would deploy time and again for the band. Sadly, this would be the last collaboration with Stepney who died in the summer of 1976, aged just forty-five. After a mediocre ‘Love Notes’ album in 1977 (though it did include a Stevie Wonder-penned gem in, ‘Spring High’, that is included here). Lewis reprised his association with Earth, Wind and Fire with fellow keyboardist Larry Dunn taking over production duties, and for this final fourth album with the band, he scored a major hit with, ‘Tequila Mockingbird’, that typified the group’s sound.
Moving on to the second CD and by the late 1970s disco was in and Ramsey Lewis’ jazz tones were somewhat passé and out of favour in comparison. However, his kind of jazz had always incorporated a healthy dose of soulfulness and from 1981’s excellent offering, ‘Three Piece Suite’, a modern soul gem emerged in, ‘So Much More’, featuring the gorgeous vocals of Alice Echols Sanderson who excels on this number. This duet was reprised on a subsequent album from which, ‘You Never Know’, became a single. A live album, ‘Live At The Savoy’, was a first for Lewis’ tenure Columbia and one track, the vocal ballad. ‘You Never Know’, is showcased here. Ramsey Lewis enjoyed his collaborations with fellow jazz musicians, and in singer Nancy Wilson he found a kindred spirit. They recorded together the 1984 album ‘The Two Of Us’, which became a minor R & B album chart success among an older generation that fondly remembered the two in their 1960s heyday. Two examples, the title track and ‘Midnight Rendez-Vous’ are included here. Lewis connected up with jazz bassist Stanley Clarke to write, ‘Quiet Storm’, and this gentle-paced mid-tempo number came out as a single in 1984.
Significantly, by the mid-1980s a new formulaic style of jazz was gaining traction, smooth jazz, and Ramsey’s latter 1980s work fell very much into that category and is a shadow of his former work. It would be little surprise, then, that when he did change labels in the 1990s, it would be to GRP which customised that smoother jazz feel. Extended sleeve notes from Mojo writer and music Charles Waring. In general, an excellent selection of numbers that accurately reflects Lewis’ evolution, with a small caveat that the reworkings of his 1960s hits could have been dispensed with in favour of more of the Afro-Brazilian grooves of his Earth, Wind and Fire productions. Otherwise, exemplary sounds and as ever beautifully illustrated with sleeve covers and 45 labels, both in the US and UK.