Monday, February 4, 2008

The Gospel According to Ramsey Lewis: Concert review

Where: Ted Mann Concert Hall
Who: Ramsey Lewis (piano), Larry Gray (bass), Leon Joyce (drums), William Kilgore (organ), Eleanor Hampton (voice)

Back when jazz had a chance at cracking the Top 40, Ramsey Lewis had a string of radio hits ("The In Crowd," "Wade in the Water," "Hang On Sloopy," "A Hard Day's Night"). With very few exceptions, he hasn't played clubs in decades, and I had never seen him perform live until he came to the Ted Mann.

Lewis has been on tour since January 2007, appearing solo, with his trio, with Dave Brubeck, Nancy Wilson, and the Joffrey Ballet Company in various venues from New York to California. Minneapolis and Wisconsin appear to be the only places he brought his gospel show, although he also performed with a gospel choir in Strathmore, Maryland.

The first half of the performance featured the trio and music from "To Know Her...," Lewis's collaboration with the Joffrey. They did a beautiful cover of the Beatles' "In My Life," with bowed bass from Gray and big drums from Royce. After a lengthy solo of music from the Joffrey work, Lewis announced, "It's time to go to church."

Hampton came out singing "Amazing Grace," and Kilgore took his place behind a tiny keyboard. He was supposed to have a Hammond B-3, "but someone didn't get the memo," Lewis explained. Kilgore was robbed and so were we. After a few robust organ-like chords, the keyboard seemed to fail entirely, and Kilgore's considerable talents (he plays organ on Lewis's award-winning gospel album With One Voice) were wasted.

We heard "Precious Lord," Ellington's "Come Sunday," "Wade in the Water," "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior" (one I didn't know; maybe Lutherans don't sing it?), and "This Little Light of Mine," some sung, some instrumental. This wasn't pure gospel, it was jazz gospel, with quotes and improvisation. And it wasn't a gospel revival show like the Blind Boys deliver, although Hampton tried more than once to get us clapping along with the music. For encores, they gave us "The In Crowd" (still a good tune) and "Oh Happy Day."

I'm glad I had the opportunity to see Ramsey Lewis live (this concert was part of the 2007-2008 Northrop Jazz Season, to which we subscribe), but the evening seemed like two separate performances with an awkward segue. There was no intermission, which would have helped effect a transition. We wondered later if the whole program might have been gospel, or included more gospel, had it not been for the organ failure.

Subscribers were invited to a meet-and-greet reception following the show. We spoke with Kilgore, who was wearing a very fine suit, with Hampton, who was charming, and with Joyce, who spent much of his music career with Marine Corps bands.

Photo of Ramsey Lewis from Narada.

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