Twenty-four years have passed between the release of the first, self-titled Urban Knights album and the group’s latest recording, VII. The project began as an all-star collective, featuring fusion masters like Victor Bailey alongside voices from the smoother jazz vanguard like Grover Washington, Jr. and dexterous veterans like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and pianist Ramsey Lewis. Since that first incarnation, Lewis has led varying lineups, keeping up the smart weave of acoustic bop melodies with classic fusion instrumentation. The current “Urban Knights,” really more an alternate moniker for Lewis’ current band, may not hold the same pedigree but certainly don’t lack prowess.
This is the first recording for Lewis since his abrupt retirement in 2018, followed by an equally abrupt un-retirement. Listening to VII, it’s clear why he chose this group for his return to music. An infectious joy extends from every instrument in their reworking of his “Tequila Mockingbird,” ushered in by Charles Heath’s carnival-worthy marching drum line. As Lewis lays down the lightly swinging rumba groove, keyboardist Tim Gant chimes in with synthesizers above like a celestial fanfare. Henry Johnson drives the band here and elsewhere with ringing, rapid-fire scratch rhythm guitar. The Knights find their way into a strong Latin feel on Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba,” with a similar delightfully dynamic arrangement.
In between these tracks, and solo-acoustic melodic sketches by Lewis, the record presents more typical fusion fare, including a spellbinding cover of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” sung by Dee Alexander. The group only truly gets bogged down on “The Rose,” due to syrupy-smooth production. They more than make up for it with “Baby, Don’t You Wanna Go,” Lewis’ reimagining of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago,” here both a herald of his reappearance on the bandstand and a sharp testimony to Urban Knights’ continued vibrancy
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