Ramsey Lewis calls bright and early on a Monday morning, and he’s profusely apologetic. He’s gotten his weekends mixed up following a concert in Birmingham, Ala., and he almost never does interviews on Sundays, he says, so he’d missed our scheduled interview time. Lewis’ effusive contrition proves him a gentleman of jazz — recalling the title of his first album, Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Jazz, released in 1965. Nearly 50 years later, at age 74, Lewis is still going strong; this year alone, his electric quintet — pieced together in 2011 to record Take Another Look, Lewis’ 80th album — is slated to perform more than 100 dates. One of those dates is Saturday’s Auntie Karen Legends Of… concert, where the legendary jazz pianist will perform with legendary vocalist Patti Austin; Free Times caught up Lewis and spoke to him about how Take Another Look recalls his 1974 jazz-funk classic Sun Goddess, and how Earth Wind and Fire’s Maurice White pushed him toward that sound, and the finer points of the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Below is an edited transcript; read more at free-times.com.
Free Times: You released Taking Another Look last year, and it revisits a lot of the themes and sounds from your landmark Sun Goddess record. It’d been 34 years since Sun Goddess; why revisit it?
Ramsey Lewis: Well, it happened quite by accident. [laughs] When the idea for an electric band came up year before last, we hadn’t played together, and we didn’t have any tunes, really. We hadn’t played together. So I called the guys, and I said, well, let’s just get some of the songs off the Sun Goddess album — most of them are electric — and we can use those to get to know each other. And they did, and it went so well. I said, Wow, you guys are breathing new life into these old chestnuts. So, at that time, I didn’t have any idea we’d record them, but a couple days later, I said what the heck. This way, we’d get into the studio quicker, and I don’t have to write new songs.
Before Sun Goddess, you’d worked mostly in acoustic trios and such, in a kind of leaner, more bebop-oriented sound. And The In-Crowd, which a lot of folks think is your finest work, is very straight-forward trio jazz. How did you develop that deep funk groove in the ’70s? Was a big part of it when Maurice White joined your band?
A lot of people, when I did The In-Crowd, they said, oh, it’s funky, it’s bluesy, it’s this, it’s that. But actually it’s the influence of playing gospel music. And the trio changed, the original trio changed, and we needed a drummer. And Maurice White came to the group, and he played with the trio — it was Maurice White and Cleveland Eaton in the trio. And Maurice then said, “Well I’m going to form my own group.” And I said, “Oh, are you going to form a trio or quintet? Are you going to play bebop?” And he said, “No, man. We’re going to dance. We’re going to play rock ‘n’ roll.” And I said, “Oh, Maurice.” [chuckles] “Take a couple aspirin and get over it!”
So he left and went to California. And a couple years later, he calls me and says, “I got this song, and you might want to record it. We’re in New York and we’re going to L.A., but we’re can stop in Chicago. I’ll bring two or three guys with me, and you’ve got a hit record.” … So they came, and we did this song … And so he’s packing up and getting ready to go, and he says, “Oh I almost forgot. We have this other melody, just a melody, like a 16-bar melody, it’s really nice, but that’s all there is to it, so you’re going to have to do some soloing to fill out the song.” And we went on for seven or eight minutes, because we didn’t think it was going to be a single.
And, I said, “What are you going to call this second song?” And he said, “Well, just call it ‘Sun Goddess.’” Well, the single came out. But … [p]eople were coming in and asking for “Sun Goddess.” So, then Maurice, by now, Earth Wind and Fire is hotter than a firecracker, and he said, “You know, you want to tour with us? You could do your set, and then we could do Sun Goddess together.” And it was during that tour that I added some electric instruments so we could play these songs.