Ramsey Lewis the epitome of jazz crossover success

Big non-jazz audiences: What does it take for a jazz artist to reach them? And if they do, does that still make them serious jazz artists, or something else? Is their aim, when presenting new music to the masses, one that  has to do with the mainstream?

The music being presented to jazz audiences now seems very much designed to also speak to wider audiences. Tastes are changing as reflected in much of the current music. Artists are reaching wider audiences, which can only be a good thing, right?

What I’m really talking about is crossover appeal. Well-known jazz artists and their crossover appeal, specifically. But I’m also talking about those most likely to attract new audiences to jazz.

Think bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, who has crossover appeal. Her new album is Radio Music Society from Heads Up. The disc includes a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It.”

Ramsey Lewis and his quintet will perform on May 20 & 21 at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. Taking Another Look is his latest CD. Photo courtesy of facebook.com/RamesyLewisJazz

Think pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis, who also has proven crossover appeal. His most recent album is 2011’s Taking Another Look from Hidden Beach Records. Think of what he was able to do with the song “The In Crowd,” among other recordings.

The Chicago native has been able to reach a large non-jazz audience. No problem. No wonder he is one of the most successful pianists around. On May 20 and 21, Lewis will bring his quintet to the Dakota. The Taking Another Look CD includes 10 songs by Lewis and his Electric Band.

According to Lewis, as stated at his website:

“When the idea of the electric band came up, I had been playing mostly in an acoustic trio format for 12-15 years. So I decided to get together with some hand-picked musicians to see how it felt. The rehearsals went so well that I called my engineer, Danny Leake and my producer/son, Frayne Lewis, to come in and roll tape. Of all the albums, this album takes its place among the top five.”

“Not unlike most European classical music and the Great American Songbook, there are jazz compositions that deserve reconsideration or repeated interpretation — probably even more so today in jazz because our interpretations are ‘of the moment’; therefore, we now undoubtedly see things differently than in years past.

“So in putting together the electric band, I went back and listened to some of the things we had performed during the Sun Goddess period and was interested to see what these new young musicians currently in my band would do with them. I was not at all surprised to hear some innovative ideas on these pieces. I thought it important to include them on the album.”

Taking Another Look and the Sun Goddess Tour happened almost suddenly. The idea of including electric instruments in performances and on the album started with the suggestion of Rio Natsume in Japan at the Blue Note Tokyo when we were there in October 2010.

“Almost immediately after I returned home, there was a suggestion from Jack Randall at the Ted Kurland Agency for the same thing. Then after the holidays, I decided to have a jam session/rehearsal with the guys and try it out. The whole thing happened within a span of about 90 days. By no means have I abandoned my love for the nine-foot Steinway Grand — we just now include electric instruments as well.”

Taking Another Look includes a new rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and a new version of the “Sun Goddess” recording that originally featured Earth Wind & Fire, who will perform for the Pacer Center’s 30th Annual Benefit on May 5 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Talk about crossover success, Earth, Wind & Fire is an excellent example of what crossover appeal is all about. A number of artists of jazz have recorded their music and continue to do so.

Call me a dreamer, but I would like to see jazz artists like Jeremy Pelt enjoy some crossover success. His new HighNote offering is Soul. What a beautiful disc. It’s easy to enjoy the sounds of this working band, which includes saxophonist J.D. Allen, pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

Soul is the band’s fourth recording. But to truly appreciate Pelt, one must not simply look at this first big debut, Close to My Heart from MaxJazz; one must review his process, meaning all the recordings in between that have brought him to this collective musical Soul.

Imagine what could happen if Soul actually crossed over? Does his band have crossover appeal? Yes. Take one listen to “Moondrift” featuring Joanna Pascale (a Philadelphia-based vocalist) and find out what I mean. That’s not to say they would require a vocalist to meet the task, because they could just as easily attract a wider audience with the track “Second Love” penned by Pelt.

Included on Soul, I’m happy to report, is George Cables’ “Sweet Rita Suite.” The band does the song justice. If you’ve heard his song, “Helen’s Song,” then you know the value of a great George Cables composition.

Sure, attaining this goal might take some effort, but it could work with Soul. In the meantime, I just wish they would come to the Twin Cities. The whole band. For two nights. In St. Paul or Minneapolis. Take your pick.


Robin James welcomes reader responses to jamesonjazz@spokesman-recorder.com.