40-Year Jazz Vet Has Only Partially Gone Soft
In 1965 Chess records released a Ramsey Lewis Trio best-of album called Choice!. Featuring the original Trio of pianist Lewis, bassist/cellist Eldee Young and drummer Red Holt, the collection showcased the straightforward jazz of Lewis’s early career. Yes, it contained a few ballads and an adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen, but it also had blues ‘n’ bop numbers like the barnstorming “Something You Got” and an adaptation of “CC Rider”. While Lewis was never going to be placed in the pantheon of ‘50s and ‘60s jazz alongside the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or even Bill Evans, the music on Choice! solidified his reputation as a solid performer with impeccable taste.
You have to admit that it’s impressive to see a new album of Ramsey Lewis Trio material nearly 40 years later. Still at it after so many of his contemporaries have fallen away, Lewis is one of the only recognizable names from his era to be actively recording in 2004. That’s the good news.
Then you get a good look at the cozy, vaguely ethnic, folk-art cover of Time Flies, and you notice it’s been released on the Narada Jazz label, part of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based company that’s best known for helping popularize the terms New Age and Adult Contemporary. Then you find out that Time Flies is essentially a collection of new “re-interpretations” of Lewis’s best known material, peppered with several virgin compositions. Time to worry.
Actually, Lewis has recorded for Narada jazz for several years. And, despite all the indications of impending mediocrity, Time Flies gets off to a magnificently strong start. A take on Brahms’s “Poco Allegretto from Symphony #3 in F Major” is elegant and moving, injected with just the right amount of contemporary swing. It’s followed by the album’s best track, the all-new Lewis original “Second Thoughts”. Led by a tragic, weeping cello melody from Larry Gray (who doubles on bass), and anchored only by Leon Joyce, Jr’s hand drums, “Second Thoughts” teeters delicately on Lewis’s spare, lovelorn piano. It’s Moby without the samplers, and about as contemporary as you can get—in the positive sense of that word.
When it keeps things fairly straight-up and acoustic, Time Flies remains a near-excellent effort. “Hide & Seek” is almost pure bop, while “Last Dance” is alternately brooding and passionate. That these are further Lewis originals suggests that the bandleader might have been better off ditching the re-interpretation bit altogether and concentrating on his current muse. That hunch becomes a certainty in the light of the rest of Time Flies. Gospel numbers like “Wade in the Water” and Kirk Franklin’s “Hosanna” are sincerely performed, but can’t break out of their slick studio sheen. Lewis’s most famous number, “The In Crowd”, suffers an atrocious smooth-jazz makeover, complete with programmed “hip-hop” rhythm.
While “The In Crowd” is the worst possible nightmare for fans of Choice! or any of Lewis’s best work, the rest of Time Flies manages to avoid, and sometimes transcend, that scenario.