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December 2009

Ramsey Lewis Songs From the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey

Songs From the Heart is, in a word, astonishing. It finds Ramsey Lewis, after 50 years playing R&B- and pop-laced jazz piano, reinventing himself as a composer—hence the subtitle, Ramsey Plays Ramsey. The trio disc (Larry Gray, bass; Leon Joyce, drums) contains 12 straightahead tunes of extraordinary delicacy, lyricism and finesse, all sounding thoroughly fresh.
Gospel and classical have always been Lewis favorites, particularly the former, but classical takes the wheel here. That’s only natural, since two-thirds of Songs was originally commissioned for the Joffrey Ballet. Nonetheless, the Satie-like quiet of “Clouds in Reverie” and “Watercolors” is surprising, as is the formal precision of “To Know Her Is to Love Her” and the achingly lovely “Conversation.” He even nods to John Lewis, the great classical-to-jazz bridge-builder, in his bluesy but crisp attack on the romantic “The Glow of Her Charm.” Gospel still makes its presence known via “The Way She Smiles,” a happy stomp.

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Ramsey Lewis

Lewis does bring in something from his pop immersion: instantly memorable tunes. The funky “The Spark” sinks in so immediately it seems you’ve known it for years; ditto the lithe bossa-nova “Rendezvous.” Gray and Joyce have no small part in the catchiness; the bassist offers excellent arco work on “To Know Her Is to Love Her” and an irresistible double-stop line on “Exhilaration,” while Joyce simmers with gregarious fills on “The Way She Smiles” and rock-ish backbeats throughout. Songs From the Heart is likely to rise on first listen to the top of the year’s best-of lists—and stay there.

Originally published in December 2009
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