[29 January 2012]
Ramsey Lewis first made his name in the mid-1960s putting a funky, soul-jazz instrumental finish on top 40 fare such as “The In-Crowd” and “Hang on Sloopy”. The formula garnered his trio (which included future Earth Wind and Fire founder Maurice White on drums) significant crossover success and made Lewis one of America’s most successful jazz pianists. By the early 1970s, however, he’d tired of the acoustic trio format and embraced R&B fusion and funk. Eventually reuniting with White, this period reached its fruition in 1974 with the release of the classic Sun Goddess, which featured Earth Wind and Fire on several tracks and Miles Davis co-conspirator Teo Macero in the producer’s chair. Charting at number one both on the Billboard Black Albums chart and the Jazz album chart, it was both Lewis’s best selling album of the ‘70s and a cornerstone of the emerging smooth jazz movement. Anyone in a hurry to conjure up some mid-‘70s warm fuzzies would be hard-pressed to top Sun Goddess as a starting point.
Fast forward some 35 years and jazz elder statesman Ramsey Lewis has been scarcely near a Moog or Fender Rhodes in 15 years. Performing jazz standards with an acoustic trio in Tokyo, the Land of the Rising Sun asks if he’d consider returning with the rise in volume of an electric band (and maybe a few Sunn amps to boot). Coincidently, his agent has been thinking along the same lines but with an added twist. He’d like his client to bring together the Electric Band and revisit the material from Sun Goddess. Initially skeptical, Lewis gets the group together “just to see how it feels” and likes what he hears. That in a nutshell is how Ramsey Taking Another Look, released on Hidden Beach Recordings and Lewis’s 80th album, came about. Hearty thanks to the fusion-loving Japanese and busybody agents, without whom we might’ve missed out on something special. No polite promenade down memory lane, Ramsey Taking Another Look packs up everything to love about Sun Goddess and forcefully plants it in the here and now. If you’re Ramsey Lewis, the here and now is apparently a ballsy place to be.
Four of the seven tracks from Sun Goddess have been rerecorded by Lewis and his crack Electric Band featuring Charles Heath on drums, Joshua Ramos on bass, Henry Johnson on guitar and Tim Gant on various keyboards (the version of “Sun Goddess” is a re-edit of the original and not a remake). Additionally, they’ve laid down five new similarly conceived numbers. Engineer Danny Leake exploits the advances in recording technology to the fullest, bringing the rhythm section front and center and giving each instrument its own individual space. The sound here is truly amazing – you feel like you’re sitting in the room as the tracks are laid down. Happily the 76-year-old Lewis and his cohorts are in terrific form. For proof go no further than their version of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”. If you liked it on Sun Goddess, you’ll love it here. Listen to the dynamics of that opening rising like steam from a Lower East Side manhole, to Heath and Ramos locking into a heavy Jurassic funk groove (Jurassic in the sense of recalling a strutting Brontosaurus), to Lewis airing it out on a bluesy extended solo and to the glory of that final “Living……living for the city” chorus being spelled out for all eternity. If we can say Wes Montgomery owned “Round Midnight” and Coltrane “My Favorite Things”, then Lewis has certainly got dibs on “Living for the City”. I have few complaints on the other re-recorded material, either. “Jungle Strut” (here shorn of the “Latino” street banter lurking on the original) kicks off like “Haitian Fight Theme” Mingus suddenly getting the funk before settling into a fatback groove punctuated by Ramsey’s Fender Rhodes and the most lowdown Moog riff you’re ever likely to hear. “Tambura” keeps its ‘70s fusion Mojo even while the sound is pure updated 2011 funkware. The beautiful “Love Song” gets the biggest makeover of the Sun Goddess material. Gone is the dreamy, romantic innocence of 1974 (those strings….) and in its place is a stately, slightly matured take on love and loss. Some might miss the lush production of the original but then a great melody is still a great melody.
One of the triumphs of Ramsey Taking Another Look is how seamless it sounds despite the multi-decade gap in the conception of the material. A tender version of the Stylistics’s “Betcha By Golly Wow” (Lewis’s Steinway has never sounded better) sits nicely alongside “Love Song” and “Living for the City” on the poppier side of things while “To Know Her” combines the funk with a dripping with regret melody as midnight blue as any gin-joint standard. Guitarist Henry Johnson contributes some nice post-Scofield blues-bop licks here as well. “Intimacy” kicks the record off with Johnson playing a brooding, extended guitar figure before Lewis’s stately piano enters setting up an in your face groove and bittersweet melody. On the easy-going “The Way She Smiles” the wily Mr. Lewis reminds us where the funk came from to begin with. The vibe and rhythms are pure Big Easy. “Sharing Her Journey” winds things up with a nice taste of old school fusion. But actually no, there’s still the re-edit of “Sun Goddess” (brought down to five minutes from its original eight) to take us home. Like an old Super-8 film played over the closing credits of a Hollywood tearjerker, we see the faces are younger and the clothes no longer fit but still it reminds us how we got here (not to mention what a great band Earth Wind & Fire was). Way-oh, way-oh……
Ramsey Taking Another Look is a record that few thought Ramsey Lewis would ever make (perhaps least of all the man himself) and goes to show sometimes the best things can occur out of nowhere. After his initial reluctance to revisit electric jazz, Lewis now rates his latest among the five best records he’s ever made. Who are any of us to argue?