Ramsey Lewis: Life is Good
AAJ: You've returned to electric music with your album, Ramsey: Taking Another Look, and this tour with a five-piece ensemble. What was the impetus behind the album and the shift back into this mode of music?
RL: I had the trio and was having a wonderful time and my agent called me and said he'd been getting a few phone calls from performing arts centers, buyers, and producers asking if I was ever going to go back to the electric band. I hadn't even though about it. This was the year before last, in October or November, and I said, "I'll give it some thought." We were touring with the trio and then the Christmas holidays came so I wasn't playing. Right after the first of the year, though, Carol, my wife, said "Why don't you have the guys come over?" So we went to a studio with the quintet just to play, just to see how it'd feel and, my God, I had so much fun that I called my agent and I said, "OK, this is it, let's go with the quintet." And the songs that ended up on the album, Taking Another Look, are the songs we were jamming on at the rehearsal session. So only six or eight weeks after that I just booked studio time and said, "Let's just go in and record these songs."
AAJ: When you had a big hit with the song "Sun Goddess," what kind of gigs were you playing at the time? Were you playing big venues?
RL: Just before that time we were playing a combination of nightclubs and performing arts centers. We were playing two or three thousand-seat auditoriums and also fair-sized clubs. And after "Sun Goddess" we were playing mostly concerts.
AAJ: And was that mainly to a jazz crowd, a rock crowd, an R&B crowd, or everybody?
RL: Everybody. I've always drawn everybody.
AAJ: Being commercially successful and engaging a lot of different audiences-through covering familiar music like folk music and pop music-how do you feel about labels such as "pop jazz" or "smooth jazz" or "easy listening?"
RL: I know nothing about labels. I don't care about labels. I only acknowledge a fine piece of material, a nice song, a good melody, nice chord changes, a rhythm section, or something that catches my attention.
The only label to me that had a lot of copycats was "smooth jazz." I remember when [keyboardist] Joe Sample, [singer] Al Jarreau, and guitarist George Benson, myself, and [saxophonist] Grover Washington, Jr. were getting a lot of play on various stations, and some company came along and said, "We're gonna call these stations 'smooth jazz' stations." Before I knew it there were thousands of copycats out there.
AAJ: And most of it was pretty awful...
RL: Most of them were pretty awful. And I think they ruined the name, actually. There's nothing in a name except what it represents, and it no longer represented the higher quality of music that the original guys were doing. They watered it down, they took what we were doing and they watered it down, and many of them just couldn't play.
AAJ: I feel like throughout your entire career there's always been a substance and a unique quality to your music. As a 33-year old, I originally came across your music in my dad's record collection. He had Wade in the Water (Cadet, 1966) and Live at Bohemian Caverns (Verve, 1964), among Bob Dylan, the Ventures and Iron Butterfly albums. I agree with your feelings that its all very much one thing, and the overused Ellington quote of music being "good, or the other kind" is part of your approach.
RL: I totally agree with you.
Ramsey Lewis, Ramsey: Taking Another Look (Hidden Beach, 2011)
Ramsey Lewis, Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey (Concord, 2009)
Ramsey Lewis, Salongo (Sony, 1976)
Ramsey Lewis, Sun Goddess (Columbia 1974)
Ramsey Lewis, Tobacco Road (Chess, 1972)
Ramsey Lewis, Mother Nature's Son (Universal, 1968)
Ramsey Lewis, Wade in the Water (Cadet, 1966)
Ramsey Lewis, Tribute to Clifford Brown (Argo, 1958)
All Photos: Jacob Blickenstaff