Out Late with Ramsey Lewis
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Out Late with Ramsey Lewis

Jazz great Ramsey Lewis goes out on the town post-show with F. PAUL DRISCOLL.

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© Dario Acosta 2015
August 8: World Premiere of his Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival, with Scott Hall conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
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Photographed at Lincoln Ristorante by Dario Acosta
© Dario Acosta 2015

The most elegant gentleman in Avery Fisher Hall on a cold Wednesday night in February is sitting on the aisle in Row M. Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis — the personification of “cool” for fifty years — is wearing a perfectly cut black suit and a neutral expression as he listens to the New York premiere of James MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a five-section piece played with jaw-dropping legerdemain by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and paced with intensity by conductor Stéphane Denève. At one point, when Thibaudet tears into a devilishly fast section, Lewis offers a faint but definitely admiring “hmm,” but he reserves further comment. The second half of the program — which began with Denève leading the New York Philharmonic in Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande suite — is Tchaikovsky’s voluptuous Symphony No. 4 in F Minor. As the Tchaikovsky begins, Lewis settles back into his seat with a grin. “Now this makes my evening,” he says, and spends the next forty-five minutes looking blissful.

Lewis, who celebrates his eightieth birthday this year, has been playing jazz professionally for more than sixty years, beginning in his native city of Chicago. In 1965, Lewis had a career-transforming success when the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s Argo live album The In Crowd reached the top position on Billboard’s R&B chart and hit the second spot on that magazine’s top-200-albums chart for the year. The album won Lewis the first of his three Grammy Awards to date; the infectious title track entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009. The In Crowd and Lewis’s scores of subsequent recordings established him as one of the most successful jazz pianists in the U.S. He has since won recognition as a composer and as a radio and television host; his syndicated radio program, Legends of Jazz, made its debut in 1990, and a thirteen-episode Legends of Jazz television series aired on PBS in 2006. Lewis is also artistic director of Jazz at Ravinia, an annual feature of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois. In August, Ravinia will present the world premiere of Lewis’s Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra, with Scott Hall conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

When the concert is finished, Lewis and I make the short walk to Lincoln Ristorante, the smart Italian restaurant that sits next door to Avery Fisher Hall, on the edge of Lincoln Center’s north plaza. Over a glass of red wine, Lewis talks about what we’ve just heard, his own life in music — and his new composition for Ravinia. Lewis speaks with style and grace and never seems to search for a word — except when he illustrates a point by quietly scatting a walking bass line.  

“Tchaikovsky is one of my favorite composers — he always has been, from the time I started piano,” says Lewis.  “Tchaikovsky and the composers from his era might start with a folk melody as a theme, and then they stayed with it and played it upside down and inside out. They really developed it. You hear that in the symphony we heard, and in the first group of pieces by Fauré. The composer says, ‘Here I am. You can hold on to me — I’m going to take you somewhere.’ There’s continuity, and connection — a deep connection to the listener, with harmonies that develop and repeat. Maybe that is a reflection of a simpler time. Now life is moving along at the speed of I don’t know what.

“The [concerto] — I’m in a peculiar position, because I don’t like to criticize composers. I couldn’t connect to it. It showed me the technique of a wonderful piano-player — the way he can go from the bottom of the piano, making it roar, all the way to the top of the keyboard and still sound absolutely clean. His playing was through the roof. But I couldn’t grab hold of the piece itself.”

Lewis started piano lessons at four and says he fell in love with music at twelve. He began composing “one or two pieces at a time, to go on albums. I did that until [Ravinia Festival president and CEO] Welz Kauffman asked me to do something with the Joffrey Ballet. I wrote about forty-five, fifty minutes’ worth of pieces — and I thought they were pretty good — and the whole thing was named To Know Her Is To Love Her. It was difficult getting started writing a long-form work, but — long story short — it went off very well. Since then, Welz has invited me to write other things, and now long-form works are no big deal to me anymore.

“This one we have coming up is for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and jazz trio, and celebrating my eightieth birthday. I was very flattered when they asked. I’m going to play with my trio, and the orchestra, onstage. Some of the four movements are lively, and one of them is very romantic. 

“I’ve learned the hard way to give the orchestra signposts as I’m improvising, so they can count off, so the conductor can count the bars that I’m improvising, and it’s up to me to make sure that my improvisation stays in that amount of bars, so then when we get to letter B, which is the end of my solo, and he gives the downstroke to the orchestra, we’re all in accord. I learned that the hard way. The first time I did To Know Her Is To Love Her with the Joffrey Ballet, I thought they knew where I was improvising. They didn’t know I was improvising, so they choreographed to the improvisation! I learned that you can’t just do that.  

“The trick in working with Scott Hall, the arranger, is to make the music interesting and challenging enough for the CSO, so they won’t be sitting up there looking at their iPhones during the performance” — he laughs — “but will really feel challenged and interested in the music — not give them a bunch of whole notes every time they turn the page. Scott’s good at that, but at the same time, we have to have passages where I feel free to go for broke. I’m not the composer when I go to perform it that night. I’m definitely a performer. All that work’s done. But when the orchestra comes in, I’ve got to get out of their way!” spacer 

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