Friday, August 14, 2009

Ramsey Lewis at Orchestra Hall: Concert review

When: Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009 • Where: Orchestra HallWho: Ramsey Lewis, piano; Larry Gray, bass; Leon Joyce Jr., drums. Opening set: Bruce Henry, vocals; Peter Vircks, saxophone; Bryan Nichols, piano; Chris Bates, bass; Daryl Boudreaux, percussion; Kevin Washington, drums. Host Irvin Mayfield.

Last night’s program at Orchestra Hall was billed as being all about the blues. It wasn’t, but nobody cared. Instead, the audience was treated to a sublime set of music by the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Anyone who thinks this group is about resting on laurels, delivering hits, and playing it safe is mistaken. The music was as rich and sophisticated, melodic and complex, inside and out there as any I’ve heard in a long time.

The opener, “Wade in the Water,” became a sweet samba, with Joyce stroking his drums with his hands. The crowd applauded wildly and Lewis joked, “Shall we quit while we’re ahead?”

At 74, Lewis has embarked on what is almost a new career, or at least a new passion: composing. A series of commissions for the Joffrey Ballet and the Ravinia Festival, where Lewis serves as artistic director for jazz, has made him feel “like a kid on Christmas morning.” His new CD, Songs from the Heart, due out on Concord on Sept. 29, is his first-ever (out of 80 to date) to include all original compositions.

We heard “To Know Her Is to Love Her” (from the Joffrey work) and “Conversation,” written for Ravinia and performed there in 2008 by the Turtle Island String Quartet. The latter made me hold my breath, it was so beautiful—and much like a conversation, perhaps between lovers, with changes in mood and tempo. Another original, “Exhilaration,” showcased Gray on the bass, bowing like a classical master, plucking and tapping like an avant-garder. We heard a lot of arco (bowed) bass during the evening; Gray used his bow almost as much as he used his fingers.

Throughout, Lewis made occasional references to the blues, inviting us to “find where it is” in the music he was playing, reminding us that jazz was born in the blues. For the centerpiece of the set, he took us back to before the blues with a medley of gospel tunes and spirituals. Not the usual play-a-few-notes, awkward-pause, switch-tunes medley, but a lengthy, elegantly constructed series of phrases, whole songs, and variations within songs, linked together by improvisation, like pearls on a string. Between selections, as Lewis moved his fingers over the keys, you could almost hear him thinking “What next?”

I recognized “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Precious Lord,” Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” “How Great Thou Art,” and (I think) “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” Lewis and Joyce traded melodic phrases (Joyce played notes on his drums, with help from his elbows) on the way to Joyce’s big solo of the night, a breathtaking display of speed, invention, and precision.

Except for the originals, much of this was music many of us had heard before, made new by surprising changes and phrases, rhythms and transitions. People talked afterward about how modern it was, how “outside,” and how it wasn’t what they expected.

We got the encore everyone wanted: “The ‘In’ Crowd.” A soft and lovely solo piano introduction worked its way there, the familiar chords burst forth, and the audience loved it. Joyce’s whistle midway through signaled a detour into an Afro-Cuban tempo.

If you’re going to have a huge hit, make it a good one, like “The ‘In’ Crowd” or “Take Five” or "Poinciana," and don’t get stuck singing “Muskrat Love” for the rest of your life.

For the last song of the night, Lewis finally gave us a classic blues tune: Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” (Hat tip to Dan Emerson for the title.) Which, as it happens, appears on Lewis's first-ever live album, Ramsey Lewis Live at the Savoy (1982).

A note on where we sat: We moved during intermission from a row midway down the main floor to empty seats on Tier B looking down at the stage. With help from my handy binocs, I could see everything: how Leon Joyce reached casually over his right shoulder to tap the inverted cymbal to his right, Larry Gray pressing the strings of his bass, the red felt lightning bolts inside the Steinway, Lewis’s hands on the keys. I thought the sound was better, too—it rose up to us from the monitors and the instruments themselves, rather than passing over and between hundreds of people

And I have to say that Lewis, Gray, and Joyce looked good. I mean really good All three were impeccably attired. Their posture was perfect, their stage presence professional. Handsome men. Lewis, the legend, great statesman of jazz, is 74? Don’t believe it. Skin like a baby.

Ramsey Lewis Trio Setlist
"Wade in the Water"
"To Know Her Is to Love Her"
"Spiritual Medley"
"The 'In' Crowd"
"Baby What You Want Me to Do"

Starting what I hope will be a regular thing at OH jazz shows, the evening began with an opening set by area musicians, led by soulful vocalist Bruce Henry, who now lives in Chicago but was here long enough to become part of our music scene (plus we’re not willing to let him go).

He and his band brought out the big crowd-pleasers: “Statesboro Blues” (“Wake up, mama, turn your lamp down low”), a lovely “Embraceable You” (nice solo, Chris), Henry’s composition “Jump That Broom,” and “House of the Rising Sun,” which Henry said he was inspired to sing by Nina Simone.

They were given half an hour—not long enough, even though Lewis and his trio were up next.

After last night’s “Broom,” Boudreaux needs a new washboard; he broke a leg on the one he had.

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