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Ramsey Lewis: Taking Another Look

Bill Milkowski reviews the latest from the veteran keyboardist

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Ramsey Lewis has dominated the scene twice in his career: during the mid-’60s, when jukeboxes all over America were pumping out “Hang on Sloopy” and “The ‘In’ Crowd” with great regularity, and again in the mid-’70s, when “Sun Goddess” and his version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” flooded the airwaves. While Lewis has recorded prodigiously over the past three decades, he hasn’t made nearly as much of an impact. Now, for his 80th release as a leader, the pianist-composer-bandleader and crossover pioneer returns to his former glory by pulling his old trusty Fender Rhodes electric piano out of the closet and dusting off some soul-jazz gems from nearly 40 years ago.

A remake of “Jungle Strut” (from Sun Goddess) is given a new suit of clothes by Joshua Ramos’ fat upright bass groove and drummer Charles Heath’s slamming backbeat. “Tambura” (also from Sun Goddess) is a chugging retro funk-fusion workout that harkens back to the best of the ’70s crossover movement. But the unapologetically schlocky “Love Song” is a tad saccharine, and his remake of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” lacking the menacing edge of the original, smacks of artifice. Lewis does much better summoning up real emotional power with his instrumental version of the Stylistics’ romantic ballad “Betcha by Golly Wow,” which features some brief but beautiful exchanges between Lewis’ piano and Henry Johnson’s warm-toned guitar improvisations.

“Intimacy” opens with Johnson’s tender, George Benson-inspired solo guitar work, then Lewis enters with a grand piano interlude before kicking off this tasty, expertly crafted contempo jazz number. The soulful, vaguely New Orleans-tinged “The Way She Smiles” is the standout among the new compositions. Lewis digs into this funky number with bluesy abandon while Johnson delivers his finest solo of the session. The dramatic “Sharing Her Journey,” perhaps the most ambitious composition of the outing, features guitarist Johnson at his jazziest with a remarkably fluid, Benson-esque solo. An added treat here is the inclusion of the original master take of “Sun Goddess,” which set the tone for the whole smooth-jazz movement years before that term was ever used.

Originally Published