Ramsey Lewis Trio March 8, 2008
By Glen Creason
You had to wonder if anyone had wandered into the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday to hear some good old 1960’s R&B nostalgia provided by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. After all, they were responsible for one of all-time feel-good singles, climbing toward the top in 1965 with “the In Crowd” that boomed from juke boxes and 45 record vibraphonic car stereos for years after. Yet, the rather sophisticated crowd at this event did not look like that type. Instead, they were there to see and hear one of the most gifted jazz pianists in the world; the humble, elegant and quietly brilliant Ramsey Lewis. The rest of the trio is right up at this lofty level and Lewis gave both bassist Larry Gray and drummer Leon Joyce Jr. plenty of time and space to strut their sizeable chops. Lewis may be in his 70’s but his hands and musical instincts seem to be absolutely timeless. He can take any idea from any genre and make it sing on that big Steinway. This is a man who chooses to make his jazz accessible but never predictable or strictly conventional. As a matter of fact the prime example on this night was most certainly what the group did with that aforementioned pop chestnut “the In Crowd” which took flight for over twenty minutes of astounding sonic highways and bi-ways.
The evening was full of discoveries and musical wonders which flowed from Maestro Lewis’ liquid fingers. Several sweet tunes were drawn from a collaboration with the Joffrey Ballet’s dance performance of “To Know Her.” Lewis opened with “to Know Her Is to Love Her” which made a statement of equality in the trio and preceded the fresh and easy pop of “The Way She Smiles” from the ballet. Larry Gray’s bowed bass solo and just one of many fine drum interludes from Joyce set the tone for the entire concert. The classic Beatles song “In My Life” was transformed from a delicate and sweet ride on Lewis’ piano musings to an up tempo middle punctuated by an avant-garde preamble and swinging finish. Stepping outside of pop or jazz the trio played a piece destined to be performed with the Turtle Island String Quartet that was dreamy, almost new age in content but blending perfectly with the introspective explorations of tone and color that followed. The first half finished with the stimulating “Wade in the Water” which evolved into plain old driving pop that in context was amazing. The second half was short and truly inspirational with an electrifying improvisational journey through the gospel on which Ramsey Lewis cut his musical teeth. The “spiritual medley” included “Amazing Grace,” “Precious Lord,” “Come Sunday” or “Deliver Me” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” that showcased every bit of the trios skills and put the entire hall on its feet at the finish. The wonderful “In Crowd” included samples of all kinds of great memories including Jimmy Reed amongst others. The encore of a blood pumping “Oh Happy Day” made for a perfect finish to a terrific show.