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Pianist Ramsey Lewis will forever be associated with "The In Crowd," the finger-snapping instrumental hit from 1965 that perennially sounds like the best song Ray Charles never made.
With its subtle but unmistakable elements of blues, soul and gospel deftly sheathed in a silky urbanity, you could say the tune personifies Lewis himself. Whether he's roaming the ivories onstage or delivering a narrative over the airwaves via his PBS TV series "Legends of Jazz," the tone is dulcet and the ideas well organized, multifaceted and almost casually enlightening.
Irvin Mayfield, artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra's Jazz at Orchestra Hall series, decided to tap into Lewis' verbal and instrumental acuity by inviting the pianist and his longtime trio mates for a show-and-tell conversation about the impact of the blues on jazz and other American music. If a man of Lewis' sophistication and rectitude clashes with the cruder stereotypes surrounding the blues, well, that's part of the conversation.
"I don't think I'll need to go to the library to take notes about how I came to know the blues, and we won't be playing some obvious 'Diddley Ramble' or anything," Lewis says with wry bemusement by phone from his native Chicago. "The blues are a personal expression founded on the very heritage of my birth. If I write and play something that is true to myself and you don't hear the blues, then I have missed the point.
"It has always been obvious to me that without the blues there would not be jazz. And without gospel, spirituals and field hollers, there would not be the blues. And so it goes. Any African-American who knows himself or herself lives the blues, but by now it is no longer the sole possession of African-Americans; it has become part of the greater American culture. If you make music, or any art, chances are the blues are going to come out."
Fresh energy as composer
Lewis allows that he will play his hits, including "Wade in the Water" and probably "Hang on Sloopy" as well as "The In Crowd." He will also perform spirituals such as "Precious Lord" and "Oh Happy Day." But where his theories about integrating the blues into music and artistry will perhaps most be revealed is via his own new songs.
"At 74, I've found new blood with this composing stuff. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning," he said with obvious elation. "It's interesting how life deals you cards. I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't been having lunch a couple of years ago with Welz Kauffman, who runs the Ravinia Festival [a 105-year-old outdoor music event near Chicago], and with members of the Joffrey Ballet. And Welz said, 'Hey, you guys ought to do something together.'"
Lewis went on to score the Joffrey's 2007 ballet "To Know Her..." which had its world premiere at Ravinia to much acclaim. Inspired, Lewis composed a suite of music with the Turtle Island Quartet last year titled "Muses and Amusements," and has plunged into a recent commission for a 23-piece orchestra celebrating the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, titled "Proclamation of Hope."
After composing more frequently earlier in his career, Lewis acknowledges that his commercial success bred some laziness. "Maybe I'd write one or two things [per album], but it wasn't as much of a priority as keeping my chops up and practicing with my trio," he says. "Now I have to make sure I get my practice time in before I start composing."
The Lincoln material hasn't yet been transposed to a trio format, but Lewis promises to showcase songs from the ballet and the suite at Orchestra Hall, noting, "some of the inspiration, naturally, is the blues."
That's apparent from an advance copy of "Songs From the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey," an album featuring a dozen Lewis originals (eight performed with the trio and four solo) that will be released on the Concord label in late September. Highly melodic and suffused with gently shifting moods, the blues are especially prominent on songs such as "Clouds in Reverie" and "Rendezvous." "The Way She Smiles" is a smooth, sinuous number elegantly laden with the blues as it bounces from reflection to enthusiasm to coy delight.
"Will it be educational?" Lewis asks rhetorically, about his night at Orchestra Hall. "No! That is a bad word. If I walk onstage promising to educate you, there will be a mass exodus for the door. Is this going to be Blues 101? No, it's not. But the blues is a feeling. I'm having a lot of fun right now, and we're going to have fun. The education will take care of itself."