Black Music Month, Day #18
Below are the liner notes that I’ve written for Ramsey Lewis’ exciting soon-to-be-released CD, Taking Another Look on Hidden Beach Records. Ramsey and I first worked together when I served as a librettist and creative consultant on his Proclamation of Hope: A Symphonic Poem project, which premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2011.
Ramsey Lewis’s new recording Taking Another Look and the accompanying
Sun Goddess Tour takes its inspiration from the 1970s but it is entirely forward looking.
After years of playing Japan every year since the mid-1960s, The Blue Note in Tokyo, where Ramsey is a favorite, asked whether he’d consider bringing an electric band, although they still loved his acoustic work. Then his agent suggested the same idea, however, with a more specific focus: a revisiting of Sun Goddess. His wife Jan, ever the insistent muse, concurred—it might be time to push out of the comfort zone, no matter how successful the recent groove of his work had become.
This kind of push is no stranger to Ramsey Lewis. Building a vibrant and successful career in jazz has never been easy. Jazz purists are not typically fond
of stylistic shape shifters. And it is also true that the wider listening public doesn’t generally care for elitism. Mr. Lewis has avoided the controversies in any narrow conception of jazz by consistently rising above the fray of both kinds of provincialism.
This was just another crossroads, a time to reinvent and push forward.
He pulled together a new band of musicians just to get together and jam on the Sun Goddess material, to see how it felt musically, which for Ramsey will always be the proof in the pudding. It felt good. Real good. Rejuvenating, even. Joshua Ramos, a seasoned bassist, was brought in because of his wide experience in a range of styles- from R&B, hip-hop and jazz. The freshness was then further enriched with the hires of Charles Heath, Henry Johnson, Michael Logan, (Tim Gant will be on the tour). Ramsey refers to his new crew as the “young rhythm cats.” Things were feeling so good why limit the party to a summer tour? Ramsey went in the woodshed and started writing new material and also went back to his catalog and “put a new shine” on the stuff from back in the day.
The 1970s, the decade that produced Sun Goddess, is remembered as one of the most eclectic in the history of jazz and one whose influence still shapes much of today’s music. A decade earlier, jazz had exploded and fragmented into a constellation of styles—into various kinds of fusions with gospel, soul, funk,
rock, and pop. One could also hear free jazz, and post-bop in the musical landscape together with numerous cross-fertilizations. These musical dialogues shaped the development of jazz styles in the 1970s, and Ramsey’s was an iconic voice. Although he began his career during the apex of 1950s’ hard bop, Ramsey has continually navigated jazz’s voracious muse by embracing collaboration be it with a music festival like Ravinia, with visual and graphic artists, scholars, arrangers, a ballet company, or a close-knit jazz trio. And Ramsey always sounds fresh in these formats because of a simple formula: he balances a grand sense of adventure with a firm vision of his own artistic voice.
As funk became an important sonic foundation of pop music, groups like Earth, Wind, and Fire combined elements of jazz, Latin, soul, and gospel and created a
signature sound linked to what might be called “Chicago eclecticism.” During this time, collectives of musicians formed around the idea of musical boundary crossing, especially in the Windy City. When Ramsey recorded the Sun Goddess project in 1974 with EWF, he illustrated how jazz, blues, and funk musicians could mix in a delicious gumbo and speak a language that could gain both critical and popular success. (Yes, you had the choice of dancing or listening). And he has continued to experiment musically as witnessed recently in a recording with none other than the contemporary gospel artist Smokie Norful. Yet in all of these varied settings one can still hear Ramsey clearly; in his precise and plush sense of harmony together with clear-headed, crafty, and finely sculpted improvised melodies—a little bluesy, a little Rhapsodic, and little bebop-ish.
It can be said that hip-hop artists are notable for their dedicated posses. One can say the same for their predecessors, funk bands: delicate ecologies of rugged individualism within a rhythmically interlocking collective. Each piece in funk’s sonic puzzle is crucial, and Ramsey has hand chosen a wonderful group of time travelers for this journey. Mike Logan (keyboard), Henry Johnson (guitar), Charles Heath (drums), and Joshua Ramos (percussion) take this electric ride with Ramsey. As well-established performers with impressive discographies and tour experiences in their own right, their backgrounds are typically Chicago, ranging over vast stylistic territories. When all this comes together—experience, local knowledge, and great material—we don’t so much feel a misty-eyed nostalgia but a timely sense of appreciation for a moment when the jazz could be electric, the love was free, the politics were heavy, and the night was made simpler by chanting everybody’s favorite, sing-along anthem, “Sun Goddess.”
After rehearsing the songs on the CD, Ramsey elicited engineer Danny Leake with whom he has enjoyed a 30-year partnership to record the CD, a process that took ten days to complete. Extending the metaphor in the title to the visual, the cover art designed by Michael Coakes has Ramsey “taking another sartorial
look” as well as we get to see the artist casual—looking surprisingly comfortable without the usual buttoned shirt and tie befitting the “Gentleman of Swing.”
These ten selections cover a range of emotions but not so much as to lose the project’s “concept album” perception. They reveal more than rehashed 1970s funk. While they don’t “blow the roof off the sucka,” they do win you over more subtly even as they bear the quiet intelligence of a Quincy Jones arrangement, a sound that saturated the 1970s jazz and pop worlds.
The sonic environment created by the “Sun Goddess band” never competes with Ramsey’s voice; rather, it provides an interactive palette around the pianist whether he’s playing an virtuoso, Impressionistic solo passage on acoustic piano, displaying his understanding of the dominant 13th’s expressive potential on electric keyboards (fyi: you can hear lots of these chords in any good Baptist church on the Southside!), or dressing up a melodic phrase with some “blues sauce.” Indeed, Ramsey’s liquid lyricism unites these pieces—the cover tunes like “Betcha By Golly Wow” or “Living for the City” and even the originals“Intimacy” and “Tambura.”
The idea of dialogue is the watchword here as Ramsey dialogues with his past through sound. Indeed, a conversational tone seems to govern Ramsey’s obvious rapport with this impressive band. Ramsey says he sees himself simply reacting to the younger guys in the band by playing off their energy and ideas. Indeed, the complementary, “I’m feeling you,” style is elegant and enticing. Don’t miss the sonic “sample” of the ostinato pattern from the Mary Jane Girls’ hit “All Night Long” which is used to introduce “To Know Her.” Or the inspired revisiting of the song “Sun Goddess.” Is it live or Memorex?!
For Ramsey, the idea of taking another look suggests the liberties he takes with these songs. Rather than turning back the hands of time, his goal is to bring this material into the twenty-first century for new audiences to enjoy.