Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ramsey Lewis displays elegant soulfulness in Indy Jazz Fest concert

Riding several waves of huge popularity in a career well past the half-century mark, pianist Ramsey Lewis can afford to show a number of different aspects of his personality in a 90-minute show without seeming to go far afield. There's a wide range to display, much of it in the jazz-rock fusion and smooth-jazz territory where the Chicago veteran is a major stakeholder.

That's what his Indy Jazz Fest appearance amounted to Friday night at the Madame Walker Theatre Center. At 78, he naturally brings a lot of mellowness to bear on the music, as a number of solo showcases at the Steinway grand indicated in the course of his quintet's show.

 Ramsey Lewis (photo by Mark Sheldon)

He improvised a long introduction to one tune that showed his delicacy of touch linked to an active melodic imagination. I recognized a couple of Cole Porter songs, "In the Still of the Night"  and "I Love You," and eventually the other musicians came in with something from the large Ramsey Lewis songbook.

A medley of John Coltrane's "Dear Lord" and his own tune, "Blessings,"  seemed a little too self-conscious about casting a spell over the audience. Some impatient applause at several points before the end didn't deter the ensemble from taking its time, fortunately. The performance featured expansive solos from bassist Joshua Ramos that kept the interest level fairly high. Ramos favors spectacle when he plucks his solos and approaches profundity when he uses the bow, sometimes falling short.

Guitarist Henry Johnson was featured in the smooth samba "Brasilica," which had his wordless vocals in sync with keyboardist Tim Gant as well. Johnson began his guitar solo with feather-soft nuances and helped set up a Lewis solo that led a group crescendo charge. The normally laid-back Lewis initiated a rare show of force.

Drummer Charles Heath was featured in the set's one consistently up-tempo number, and though I always get a little nervous when a band leaves the stage near the start of a drum solo, this one — while flamboyant — did not last too long.

Lewis told the audience about his childhood initiation into performing church music at 9, a responsibility that continued for seven years. Understandably, he said, those tunes have stayed with him. He wrapped several of them up in what he calls "Spiritual Medley," and I would not be surprised to learn this is a regular feature of a Lewis concert. I remember something like it from his outdoor Indy Jazz Fest performance in 2001.

Once again, we got a nice display of Lewis' subtlety and lightly applied but thoroughly embedded sense of swing as "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" gave way to "Motherless Child," "Precious Lord" and a couple of others before a brief allusion to "Lift Every Voice and Sing" generated the final cadence. Little touches of rapport within the band kept emerging as these tunes rolled out; Johnson and Gant were particularly adept tucking in fresh tags on phrases enunciated with calm majesty by the leader.

Unruffled jazz, cogently linked with adept ensemble playing,  has to stay in touch with the music's roots in the church and blues to convey substance and emotion.  Ramsey Lewis has managed to make that tricky blend work for a remarkably long time