Ramsey Lewis






From his mid-1960's pop chart heyday via "The 'In' Crowd" through his recent anchoring of two all-star Urban Knights recordings and three popular 1990's solo recordings, Chicago piano legend Ramsey Lewis continuously blends a great love of jazz with his equal affinities for European classical music, gospel and a wide range of South American music. On his most previous GRP projects, including Ivory Pyramid (1992), Sky Islands (1993) and Between The Keys (1996), he's tended towards using his trademark graceful ivory approach as a springboard to gravitate in one specific direction. On the variegated Dance of the Soul, he is at his most adventurous, offering a sweeping overview of all the styles which have made him one of modern jazz's most important and dynamic voices.

"My aim was to do an album that didn't have an obvious concept, but musically emerged with something that held the varied elements together," says Lewis, whose career spans over 65 albums since the mid-1950s. "I wanted to steer towards a clean sound without layers of synthesizers, and in that context, let my musical personality run rampant‹from the gospel music I play in church to my European classical influences and all spots in between.

"Those styles include classic American pop, from Sinatra to Sting and '70's soul to the flavors of Latin, South American, Central American, Caribbean and Cuban music. I also play more acoustic piano on this album than I have on recent projects. I wanted more sonic brilliance, a warm ivory sound to cut through and make a statement. My other outings, Between the Keys and the Urban Knights projects in particular, were more contemporary efforts. Here, I just wanted to let my creative juices flow and go where my heart wanted."

Lewis is particularly proud of the team effort that went into the creation of Dance of the Soul by his loyal and talented, Chicago-based Ivory Pyramid staff. These include engineers Danny Leake and Harry Brotman, vocalists Donica Henderson and Steve Hardeman, keyboardist/composer Kevin Randolph, composer Lambert Anthony and Ramsey's son Frayne T. Lewis, who produced the album and co-wrote three tracks.

The latest addition to the Lewis fold is young Chicago pianist Ryan Cohan, who contributed four key compositions to Dance of the Soul, including the swinging, tropical flavored title track (aka "Baile Del Alma"), the spirited, brassy samba "Lullaby," an elegant, classically-influenced "Cancion" and the dramatic, haunting seven and a half minute closing solo piece "Cante Hondo," which allows Lewis to explore his classical passions in a tender, late night setting.

"I had heard Ryan perform with the Obert Davis Group and Danny Leake's wife suggested I consider his composition possibilities," recalls Lewis. "He had put out an independent CD and I told him I liked the way he wrote. We sat down together and I told him the types of styles I wanted to incorporate on the album. Each week he came back with exactly what I had in mind. For instance, I told him I wanted a tango piece which started rubato, with the tempo going in and out. He came back with 'Cancion.' I couldn't believe how in synch we were. It's rare for me to use four songs by one outside composer, but his work is terrific. It's actually ironic, because as a player, he's more of the Bud Powell-Chick Corea school, where as I'm more Nat Cole,Earl Hines-Teddy Wilson school."

Aside from the Ryan Cohan gems, Dance of the Soul features a hypnotic, Brazilian flavored take on Sting's well-traveled "Fragile"; the sharp and thick street attitudes of "Sub Dude," which mixes the Fender Rhodes vibe with chunky modern bass grooves and playful jazz piano solos; a multi movement approach to Teena Marie's "Portuguese Love," which eases from a soulful romance into a lively jam session; the gentle percussive "Fire and Rain," which simulates the sonic experience of a jungle in a jazzy setting; the gently persuasive seduction of "Love's Serenade"; and "Mercy and Grace," a rousing, gospel trip to Lewis' regular church, singing and playing all praises with the help of the J.W. James Memorial AME choir, led by Lewis' sister Gloria Johnson.

"When you are a creative artist, you're always looking to find that close to 100 percent satisfaction level," says Lewis. "Satisfaction is usually by degrees, and I can honestly say that Dance of the Soul brings me pretty close to that high mark. I'm pleased with its content, songs and integrity level. I sat down with my team before we started and said, 'this is what I'm trying to achieve.' Everyone came through brilliantly."

Though Lewis did not write the title track, he believes that Dance of the Soul captures the idea of a musical muse that can't be pinned down, as well as a message to the collective soul of the people of the world. A virtual trip around the Western Hemisphere, the album captures the multi-faceted essence of Ramsey Lewis. After over 40 years in the business, it's no surprise that he's still creating music so relevant to the human spirit.


Largely responsible for popularizing Chicago jazz in the 1960s, Ramsey Lewis was born in the Windy City on May 27, 1935, and first played the piano at age four. By virtue of his early love for classical music, he decided at age 13 to focus on a future as a concert pianist. And then there was gospel, as he began playing for his church choir during those same formative years. Later, in high school, another church musician, Wallace Burton, invited Lewis to join his seven piece band, The Cleffs.

Attending Chicago Musical College, he formed the Gentlemen of Swing (later known as The Ramsey Lewis Trio) with The Cleffs' rhythm section Eldee Young (bass) and Red Holt (drums). A weekend gig caught the ear of an influential local deejay, named Holmes "Daddy-O" Daylie, who convinced blues record company owner Phil Chess to expand into jazz and sign the trio. Their first Chess recording was released in 1956. Lewis' love for music expanded between playing European classical music, America's classical music, jazz and gospel.

As word got out about the trio, they were offered bookings at New York's Birdland, The Village Vanguard and the Randall's Island Jazz Festival. After three months in New York, Lewis returned home to sold out shows all over Chicagoland, and offers poured in from all around the country. Over the next few years, they wore out three Plymouth station wagons touring as a top attraction, often playing four sets a night, six nights a week in nearly every state. In between their travels across America, the trio was asked in 1960 to be the house band at Chicago's London House, "the top cream job in Chicago, playing opposite groups like George Shearing, Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner."

By the mid-60s, Lewis was one of the most successful popular jazz pianists in the country, hitting the pop singles charts four times in 1965 and 1966 with "The In Crowd" (which reached #5), covers of rock classics "Hang on Sloopy" and "A Hard Day's Night," and "Wade in the Water." Three of these singles, as well as the albums Sound of Christmas (1966) and the later Sun Goddess (1975), went gold and Lewis won performance Grammys for "The In Crowd," "Hold It Right There" and "Hang on Sloopy."

At the height of their fame, the original trio broke up, with Young and Holt giving way to Cleveland Eaton and Maurice White, who would later achieve superstardom of his own as leader of Earth,Wind & Fire (and produce the Lewis-led Urban Knights I and II projects for GRP). Eaton went on to become the permanent bassist with the Count Basie Band. The new trio continued with great success throughout the '60s.

In the '70s, Lewis forsaked his synthesizers to spend full time with his first love, the Steinway Grand piano, and led a septet with "smart young musicians with independent imaginations bound by the shared pleasure of transmutation." The septet achieved great popularity (helped by doing two tours with EWF as a result of the hit record Sun Goddess), but Lewis began feeling more like a bandleader than a pianist. In the early 80s, he went back to the trio format, reuiniting for a time with Young and Holt. Since then, he's changed his surrounding sidemen numerous times, from quartet to quintet, to duets with pianist Billy Taylor and solo recitals. Nowadays, his group consists of: Henry Johnson, guitar; Mike Logan, keyboards; Chuck Webb, bass; and Oscar Seaton, drums.

Lewis has earned numerous accolades during his career, including three Grammy awards and five gold albums. He has been presented with honorary doctorate degrees from DePaul University and University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from Roosevelt University.

In addition to recording and playing live dates, currently Lewis divides his time between hosting "Legends of Jazz," a syndicated radio program heard in about 50 cities across the United States; doing the morning drive for WNUA Chicago; hosting weekly jazz programs for BET on Jazz, the 24 hour cable channel, for which he was nominated for an ACE award two years in a row; and acting as artistic director of the Jazz in June Festival at Ravinia Park. Lewis also founded and works at Ivory Pyramid Entertainment, a diverse company encompassing a recording studio and a production company that seeks out new artists and helps to develop their careers.

Lewis also finds time to gives to his community by working with several Chicago-area organizations including Merit, CYCLE, Gateway Foundation‹Richard B. Ogilvie Society, Ravinia Mentor Program, and The WNUA Cares for Kids Foundation.

Despite the numerous phases and accomplishments in a career spanning over four decades, Lewis' basic approach to his instrument is still as simple as it was in the beginning: "Experience has taught me music is built of transitory things, and this knowledge is reflected in my playing. It has taken on more depth and I express emotion more directly. I don't think when I play, I simply feel. A beautiful melodic line will comeŠas if I am a conduit. I play a mood and it is yours. I want to bring that secret to an audience who will recognize it in the deeper secrets of their own hearts."