There is nothing new or different that jazz great Ramsey Lewis hasn’t seen throughout his brilliant and legendary career. When you have recorded music 80 albums as Lewis has it would be a stretch to think that there might be a thing or two to slip by the jazz maestro.
Embellished by the gospel music he grew up on, influenced by a music teacher who encouraged him to “listen with your inner ear,” and “make the piano sing,” Lewis have churned out a musical career that few have been able to achieve.
The Chicago native recorded his first album in 1956. He’s been rolling along ever since. In the fall of 2011, Lewis hit a milestone with his 80th album, the critically acclaimed “Ramsey, Taking Another Look,” a 10-song CD that pays homage to hits created by Stevie Wonder (Living for the City) and a remake of “Sun Goddess,” which featured Earth, Wind & Fire.
What makes this album so intriguing is that Lewis made the decision to undergo a makeup himself, returning to playing an instrument he hadn’t played in 15 years.
For years, Lewis has been a honk for playing Steinway pianos. For “Ramsey, Taking Another Look,” Lewis changed up and went with playing a Fender Rhodes piano. The difference it turned out is one of the best recordings Lewis has ever made.
With a date at the 34th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival Sunday at the famed Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, Lewis chatted with News4usonline.com in a phone interview about his new CD, his career and what has made him one of the more electric pianists of this generation.
News4usonline.com: Was this a big adjustment for you to go to playing the Fender Rhodes piano?
Ramsey Lewis: “No. I’ve always liked Fender Rhodes pianos. When we first got together for the very first time early last year, I had Fender Rhodes brought over, and it was a bundle of joy.”
News4usonline.com: What led you to revisit “Sun Goddess?”
Ramsey Lewis: “We were going to have our rehearsals or jam sessions ourselves. Everybody said,” ‘So, what songs you want to jam on? I said, ‘Well, let’s listen to some of the on the “Song Goddess” album and we’ll jam on those. It went so well, those songs, and I said, ‘Now, it’s been thirty years or more since those songs are out. Plus, the way we’re doing them (songs) are fresh and different.”
News4usonline.com: You rank your current project, “Ramsey, Taking Another Look” as one of your top 5 albums you’ve made. That’s pretty high considering you’ve made 80 albums. Since you’ve recorded 80 albums, what is your goal? Is your goal Are trying to get to 100?
Ramsey Lewis: “No. Out of those eighty, I’d say at least twenty are compilations. So, it’s probably more like sixty. When we first recorded back in the 1950s, the goal was to put out an album every six months. It wasn’t until the late 60s that I think I had switched to Columbia Records. Well, I did switch to Columbia Records in the early 70s…It’s a lot of music to promote in six months. We need more than six months to promote. We went to once a year. But you figure I put out twenty albums or more those first ten years.
News4usonline.com: Do you get more enjoyment creating your music or performing on stage?
Ramsey Lewis: “Well, it’s two experiences. I enjoy composing. I really enjoy composing…I really forward to composing and performing. Performing is music of the moment. If you like what you did at that moment it’s great. If you didn’t like what you did at that moment it’s great, too. It’s not around. It’s gone. And you get to go in the direction wherever you want to go. Composing is more like you understand that it’s going to be around a while because you’re not only going to write it and publish it, but you’re probably going to record it. So you’re going to take a little more time. You can’t take the attitude that, ‘Well, it’s gone now. I’m going to stop and do something else.’ You have to go back and fondled that baby like its one best melodies I’ve ever written. Then get up the next morning and play it. Then you say, ‘No, maybe not.’ You change that note or you need to change that order or whatever. Completion of the compositions…the gratification is as high as I feel when I play the piano.”