There’s something exceptional about the rare and delicate balance of grace and soul in the playing of jazz piano great Ramsey Lewis. And if you still only know of him because of his ’65 smash pop hit “The In Crowd,” he’s got a wonderful world of music for you to discover.
At the College of St. Rose’s Massry Center, Lewis was subbing for his good friend, frequent piano duet partner and musical mentor Dr. Billy Taylor, who had originally been booked to play the gig, but passed away back in December.
And appropriately enough, the concert was as much about Taylor as it was about Lewis.
Before he sat down at the piano bench, Lewis sat center-stage for a half-hour discussion with Laura Hartmann, a 1985 St. Rose grad and Taylor’s longtime business representative. The discussion – which evolved into a Q&A session with the capacity crowd – centered on Taylor not only as a musician, but also as an educator and a determined champion of jazz in all its many facets. As Hartmann said, “Billy’s mantra was, ‘Jazz is America’s classical music.'”
After a brief intermission, Lewis returned to the stage, and it was clear that the talking was over and it was time for some music. Opening with a big, rumbling left-hand figure on the Steinway grand, working his way through a new composition, “Perchance,” a third-stream slice of music from his suite, “Colors: The Ecology of Oneness.”
Like Taylor, Lewis draws from a wide range of influences, and he showcased the variety with his rare solo program. He offered up a haunting, melancholy medley of the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” and Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night”… and made them fit together hand-in-glove. He also served up traditional gospel classics and John Coltrane’s hymn-like “Dear Lord.”
And, of course, Lewis paid tribute to Taylor, swinging through “Mood for Mendes,” in a playful arrangement that highlighted the sweet melody.
He eventually got around to some of his own hits, but he mashed them up in a off-hand, show-closing medley that seemed to say, “OK, maybe this is what you came for, so here it is. But I’ve got so much more to offer.”
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
J Hunter’s review at AlbanyJazz.com
Rudy Lu’s photographs at AlbanyJazz.com
My other review at The Times Union
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Lewis moves from gentle to less gentle. He rarely gets aggressive, more cerebral than physical. Even at uptempo speeds, he traverses the keys with such control that you hardly see his hands lift from the board. Lewis alone on stage is not a swinging, tap-your-foot experience. It’s close to the exact opposite – the beat doesn’t hold steady, and you need a sense of stillness to follow what he’s doing.”