Contemporary Jazz

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Playing By Heart

29 SEP 09 JONATHAN WIDRAN

Making his Concord Jazz debut with a stirring set of original material appropriately called Songs From The Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey, legendary Chicago based pianist Ramsey Lewis laughs, "Darn those hits," when he reflects on how his career -- which spans a half-century, over 80 albums and won him three Grammys -- has been dominated by three classic covers he did in the mid-'60s.

The covers were "Wade In The Water," "The 'In' Crowd" and "Hang On Sloopy." He never thought it possible to get a standing O from an audience without playing those songs till 2007, when he performed a set of compositions he was commissioned to create as part of the world premiere of the Joffrey Ballet's To Know Her at the Ravinia Festival in suburban Highland Park, Illinois. Eight songs from this ballet, including the percussive, easy swinging "To Know Her Is To Love Her" and the sly, "Nawlins" flavored "The Way She Smiles" form the core of the album.

Ravinia President/CEO Welz Kauffman was so jazzed by Lewis' slate of diverse originals that he commissioned Lewis to write new pieces for their 2008 season -- an assignment which produced four other compelling pieces on Songs performed with the Turtle Island String Quartet, including the hypnotic, sensual yet densely rhythmic "The Spark" and the dark and moody, reflective chamber music vibe of "The Conversation." Lewis, who complements his musical career as a local radio personality and host of the syndicated PBS series Legends of Jazz, is most excited that his newfound love of composition has enriched his playing, and he's looking at harmony and melody in a whole new light.