Orchestra Hall at the Max M. Fisher Center
Of the nine jazz concerts this season at the LaSalle Bank Paradise Jazz Series, Ramsey Lewis' performance was the one I was least thrilled about attending. Lewis's playing is dignified and polished, and that combination can sometimes be called outright boring.
Not this time.
Lewis, the three time Grammy winner, strolled onto the stage dressed in a conservative blue suit, and announced that he, bassist Larry Gray, and drummer Leon Joyce were going to have a lot of fun. And that's exactly what they did. The two-hour set was an absolute blast. In fact, it was the most fun that I've had at a jazz concert all year. Lewis started the set with his signature tune "Wade in the Water," his fingers strutting across the piano keys like they were guided by the Holy Spirit, and from that point on Lewis had his piano signifying and testifying. He whipped the crowd into a church-like frenzy, and then he calmed them with lovely ballads such as "Close Your Eyes and Remember." This particular number was a showcase for Gary, who wrapped his arms around the waist of his bass and slow-dragged with it.
This was the first time I'd seen Lewis live, and I have to eat my hat for thinking he was just a run-of-the-mill smooth jazz sensation that started out making relevant jazz music(Check his 1956 trio date "The Gentlemen of Swing")- in reality Lewis has an alter ego that swings and improvises as much as any free jazz cats I’ve heard. For instance, on the Stylistics’ "People Make the World Go Around," Lewis started with a flowery prelud, then smashed the melody on the ground, then resembled it piece by piece.
As a band leader, Lewis is no ball-hog; he let his bandmates get a chunk of the spotlight as well. Leon Joyce put his drums through an intense workout on pianist Chick Corea’s composition “Armando’s Rumba.” Lewis and Gray exited the stage while Joyce did a fifteen minute solo that was the classic hey-mom-look-at-me showboating peculiar to jazz drummers. The crowd gobbled up every bit of it, though, and I did too.
Just when I resigned myself to the fact that Lewis' performance couldn't get any better, he closed with a medley of spiritual songs from his 2005 album With One Voice. The crowd was standing and shouting before Lewis was finished with the first chorus of “Oh Happy Days," and it was a fitting conclusion because all night long Lewis made me feel like I was in a Baptist church instead of a concert hall.
Charles L. Latimer