There is something of a re-evaluation of the lengthy career of keyboardist Ramsey Lewis going on at present. It started off with individual re-issues of his Cadet recordings from the late 1960s and beginning of the 1970s on vinyl, then spread to an overview of his work for the Columbia label on a 2 CD, ‘Hot Dawgit: The Anthology – The Columbia years’, and now BGO have taken that a step further by re-issuing entire albums grouped together to better understand their historical significance. In the case of this new and excellent value for money four albums on 2CDs set, the period in question, 1975-1977, is a pivotal one for at least three reasons, and maybe more. First of all, there was a re-establishing of the relationship between soul/blues and jazz. The former genre known as soul-jazz fused bop with rhythm and blues, and Ramsey Lewis was hip to a new exploration of the now fully emerged soul genre with jazz. Secondly, the use of wordless voicings that Donald Byrd, among others, had pioneered on an early 1960s Blue Note recording was reworked for a mid-1970s audience with Byrd’s new student group, The Blackbyrds. Lewis was soaking up that sound and re-interpreting it in his own distinctive voice. Thirdly, the second generation of funk was on the path and a fellow jazz pianist in Herbie Hancock with his group The Headhunters was reinventing the very nature of jazz by adding layered keyboard textures with a heavy bass line that combined to create a repetitive and intoxicating riff, fat drum beats and the extensive use of Latin percussion. This followed on from the jazz-fusion riffs that Miles Davis pioneered on ‘In A Silent Way’, and his early 1970s recordings including ‘On The Corner’. That last Latin element may in fact be a fourth factor, namely the invasion of Latin rhythms into American popular music more generally, with the commercial success of salsa in particular impacting on the United States and more widely afield, and the parallel influence of a new generation of upcoming Brazilian percussionists (Airto Moreira, Paulinho da Costa and others), with a very different ethos and sound to the former laid back bossa nova of the early-mid-1960s. Earth, Wind and Fire in particular were now regularly incorporating Afro-Brazilian rhythms into their albums, and Ramsey Lewis had come to one decisive conclusion. The old piano jazz trio as a concept was now a thing of the past as was that image and new and extended ensembles was where the new music was at. This, in turn, would attract an entirely new and younger generation of listeners who were barely, if at all, born when Lewis enjoyed major chart success with a cover of ‘Wade In The Water’. It is this that provides the historical backdrop to this excellent collection of four albums, with the influence of producer and composer/musician Charles Stepney evident on the first two, while the increasing influence of various members of Earth, Wind and Fire comes into play on the second and third albums. The first of these was the follow up to ‘Sun Goddess’ (1974), which heavily borrowed from the Earth, Wind and Fire sound, with most of that band’s musicians on board.
Starting off with ‘Don’t It Feel Good’ (1975), the larger formation sound is discernible with layered keyboards by both Lewis and Stepney, a tight rhythm section of guitar, electric bass and drums, and Latin percussion plus wordless group vocal harmonies. All these elements come to the fore on the mid-temp soulful groove of the title track and ‘Something About You’; while for a harder edged funk tinge, ‘What’s The Name Of This Funk (Spider Man)’, Funkadelic and Parliament influences are noticeable. Remaining from Lewis’ jazz era are the intimate keys, now the electric piano of ‘Juaacklyn’, and the short interludes that became as trademark of this period for Lewis. Following up, ‘Sãlongo’ (1976), has Maurice White and Charles Stepney jointly composing music for the album and a strong Latin fusion influence, especially on a track as compelling as ‘Slick’, while the Fender Rhodes is heard at its most sensitive on ‘Seventh Fold’. This is arguably the album on which Ramsey Lewis is closest to Herbie Hancock, though departing from the fellow Chicagoan with the increasing use of Brazilian sounds, as on ‘Brazilica’, and even the use of African words on ‘Aufu Oudu’, even if the sound was pure African-American, albeit with a textured use of strings and brass.
Commercial success was almost guaranteed with the release of ‘Tequila Mockingbird’ (1977), that has the Earth, Wind and Fire imprint all over it, and the horn production of Eddie del Barrio as well as several musicians of that group in the main body of instrumentation. The mid-tempo, ‘Skippin’, with the use of light flute and brass, and the title track both echo the Earth, Wind and Fire trademark sound, while heavier on the funk is the Brazilian-influenced, ‘Camino el bueno’ (little matter that the tile is actually in Spanish) with lovely Fender. Lewis reverts to acoustic piano on the ballad, ‘Caring For You’, which was a form of pop-soul infused with jazz that Ramsey Lewis would make his own. The final album for our attention, ‘Love Notes’ (1977), takes that connection with the world of pop a step further and was again produced by Bert de Coteaux, who would make his name as the sound behind several soul-disco acts, most notably the Crown Heights Affair. Stevie Wonder guests on this final album on Fender Rhodes and synth on two tracks, the title track, and ‘Spring High’. Detailed historical notes are once again incisively provided by the knowledgeable pen of regular Mojo writer, Charles Waring, with the usual attention to detail in terms of discographical details and a black and white photo of Lewis with his band looking very different from the more sophisticated persona image of his 1960s albums for Cadet.