Billed as a commemoration of the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ramsey Lewis’ appearance Saturday night at the Gem Theater was an uplifting concert worthy of the man it honored. Almost 500 people attended the 85-minute performance, which was part of the American Jazz Museum’s Jazz at the Gem series.
King was almost certainly familiar with at least two of Lewis’ hits. Lewis’ versions of “Wade in the Water” and “The In Crowd” were among the most distinctive songs of the mid-1960s. Lewis’ unflagging emphasis on both groove and melody and his eagerness to interpret popular material made the Chicago based bandleader one of the most commercially successful artists in jazz history.
Lewis and a four-piece backing band demonstrated the welcoming approach in a wide-ranging effort that opened with a refined version of “Satin Doll.” The elegant piano work of Lewis was sweetened by the electric keyboards of Tim Gant, the sort of sumptuous gesture that has infuriated Lewis’ detractors and delighted supporters throughout his career.
The cosmopolitan funk of the visceral “Brazilica” was among the selections that would have benefitted from higher volume. The strangely under-amplified sound was occasionally overwhelmed by the rhythmic clapping of enthusiastic fans.
An unrepentantly syrupy version of the Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly, Wow” caused admirers to shout exclamations like “do it to it.” Lewis’ unaccompanied reading of the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” was even sweeter.
While he never seemed to be in need of a breather, Lewis gave his band plenty of room to stretch out. Gant’s rousing gospel-based solo during Stevie Wonder’s “Living For the City” brought many people to their feet. An extended drum statement from Charles Heath also elicited roars of approval. Henry Johnson’s guitar solos never failed to cause Lewis to smile appreciatively.
Alternating between electric and acoustic bass, Joshua Ramos provided an earthy yet appropriately elastic foundation. The potent bass riff Ramos recreated on “The In Crowd” motivated a few revelers to dance in the aisles. Lewis’ forcefully propulsive solo on the Brazilian funk classic “Sun Goddess” was age-defying. He explained that the 1974 hit was a fluke.
“You never know in the music business what people are going to like,” he said.
Perhaps. Yet even at 81, Lewis remains a sure thing.
Bill Brownlee: @happyinbag