Chicago jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis says life is good!

Mellow yellow: Former funk fiend Ramsey Lewis likes things a tad smoother these days.

Mellow yellow: Former funk fiend Ramsey Lewis likes things a tad smoother these days.

"American jazz legend dies in freak Christchurch fire". You can imagine the headline, hovering above a photo showing the charred interior of a flash hotel suite, complete with smoking Steinway.

But this is what might happen if Ramsey Lewis lights all the candles on his birthday cake later this week. I mean, we're talking 81 candles. That's not a cake: that's a bonfire.

"Ah, that's hilarious," says the esteemed pianist from his home in Chicago. I swear I even hear his hand slapping his thigh.

Chicago pianist Ramsey Lewis live on stage.

Chicago pianist Ramsey Lewis live on stage.

"Maybe we should have a fire extinguisher nearby. But yeah, I'm playing Christchurch on May 26, and when I wake up the next morning, I'll turn 81."

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The Ramsey Lewis Quartet headlines the Cavell Leitch 2016 New Zealand Jazz and Blues Festival, playing at the newly reopened Isaac Theatre Royal on Thursday 26 May. He seems well chuffed to be Canterbury bound. 

"It's becoming difficult to locate countries where I have NOT played after so many years doing concerts," wrote Lewis on his Facebook page recently. "It seems appropriate to be in a new place on my birthday this year - Christchurch, New Zealand!"

Never heard of Mr. Lewis? Get thee to YouTube without delay and you'll find treasures by the score, including several songs written for the pianist by one of his biggest fans: Stevie Wonder.

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Lewis is known for a vast repertoire, encompassing blues, gospel, 70s funk, jazz, bossa nova and pop, and spanning more than 80 albums. But first port of call for the curious newbie should his breakthrough top ten hit, The In Crowd, recorded live at the promisingly named Bohemian Caverns in Washington DC in 1965.

It's quite something. Lewis rolls and pounds the piano keys like a man overcome by the spirit in church, while the rhythm section gets more of a lewd push and pull going on, with drummer "Red" Holt becoming increasingly smack-happy on the snare as the song progresses and double bass player Eldee Young shouting "Alright!" and "Yeah, go ahead!" whenever he thuds out a particularly tasty riff.

"Oh, yeah, that was a wild show. Bohemian Caverns had always been a staunch bastion of hard be-bop players like John Coltrane, and we only thought to play that tune at the end of our set. All of a sudden, that hard bop crowd was up on its feet, stompin' and hollerin', and that's what you hear on that tune. We didn't add any of that crowd noise. That's just how it went down…".

A 20-year overnight success

Lewis is at pains to point out that overnight success took him the best part of 20 years. He had already released 17 previous albums before The In Crowd scaled the charts. Born and raised in Chicago, he started studying classical piano at age four, began playing gospel music in church at age nine, and formed his first jazz band at 15.

"I was exposed to so much music from a very early age. Nobody ever said - don't play this unless it's Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. My tastes and styles have always been all over the place. At the heart of it, I love beautiful melodies, and they come from a lot of different places."

And I've found Ramsey Lewis LPs in a lot of different places, too. Some cost a pretty penny in proper record stores, in particular 60s classics The In Crowd, Wade In The Water and Mother Nature's Son, and mid 70s jazz fusion LPs Sun Goddess and Salongo.

But others, I've picked up for a couple of bucks at garage sales. One of these - Up Pops Ramsey Lewis - has a fetching picture of our hero on the cover, 50 years younger and hip as hell, clad in mustard-coloured cashmere sweater, tight tailored slacks and button-down shirt, leaping out of a giant lidded cube like some sort of unfeasibly stylish jack-in-a-box.

"You have that? Oh, man! That's, like, late 60s, with an orchestra on some of those tunes. That goes back a ways, but then again, so do I."

Jazz collectors and soul/funk DJs tend to overlook entire decades of Lewis' output in favour of two brief periods when inspiration was running particularly hot: his mid 60s acoustic "soul jazz" records and the mid 70s jazz fusion LPs when he started experimenting with electric keyboards.

"Perhaps that's true, but everything I've done has been interesting in different ways, I think. I'm a curious guy, so I like to explore. I don't want to do one thing for too long, so I listen around and look around and try new things and see what's up."

His feted electric period was sparked by Ray Charles. "Back in the 50s, he did a record called What I Say, with a Wurlitzer electric piano on there. My bass player said- 'Man, that's such a funky sound! You should try one of those.' So I ran up on a Wurlitzer and I loved it immediately on certain tunes. I got real excited for a while by the Fender Rhodes electric piano, too."

Lewis' electric period also featured one Maurice White on drums, who went on to do great things.

"Maurice was a session drummer for Chess, and he joined my trio for three or four years, then he came to me one day and said- 'I think I'm gonna go do my own thing now'. I wished him luck, of course. I thought he was gonna form a trio or a quartet, maybe get a couple horn players. But he said, no, we're gonna dance and wear wild clothes and do magic tricks. I told him he should take a couple Aspirin and lay down for a while! You know, wait 'til this mad idea passed. But of course, that band was Earth, Wind and Fire, and they were huge…"

These days, Lewis is less likely to be found knocking fifty shades of funk out of assorted electric keyboards. He likes things a tad smoother now, and his primary instrument is the Steinway concert grand.

"The Steinway is really well made and sounds great, and there's not a whole heap of variation when you play them in different concert halls, unless the venue's taken really bad care of it. In which case, it would just make me sound bad and disappoint the audience, so I refuse to play."

Lewis recalls one "seriously messed up" piano that awaited him when he turned up for a show in Washington DC. No amount of tuning could put it right, so he cancelled that night's gig, and borrowed a Steinway off Roberta Flack for the show the following night. "She lived nearby so I gave her a call. She said, yeah - you can use it if they come move it, so that's what we did."

Assuming the Steinway in the reopened Isaac Theatre Royal is up to par, what can we expect of the Christchurch show? A killer band, for one thing, says Lewis. His current quartet features Henry Johnson on guitar, Joshua Ramos on bass, and Charles Heath on drums, all acclaimed international musicians in their own right.

"Our show falls into three of four segments. We explore the new music I'm working on now, and go right back to early hits from the 60s. I do a segment of gospel tunes, and there's a section where each band member gets to really stretch out because they're such great players."

Celebration time

And then, the next morning, it's his birthday. Another year older, and he'll be marking the occasion in a earthquake ravaged town far from home. What are his plans for the day?

"Well, now that you got me so worried about starting a fire, I think I'll just blow out one single candle, then have a look around Christchurch. But yes, you're right. Eighty one is getting up there, but I'm still exploring, and I still learn things every time I sit down to play. When you've played as long as I have, you retain a lot of ideas from past musical experiments, but you also have the confidence to try new things that may not work, which is how you have happy accidents. Even after 81 years, I'll be playing away and suddenly think 'Oh, wow! I didn't know about that one'!"

Lewis still lives in Chicago, where he grew up. He has seven children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

He has written ballet scores, played with the London Philharmonia, curated jazz festivals, won three Grammys. He spent 20 years hosting a syndicated jazz radio show, and has been awarded so many honorary musical degrees, he could wallpaper his study with them.

And Lewis is one of very few jazz musicians chosen to carry the Olympic Torch, when it passed through Chicago en route to the 2002 Winter Games.

"Oh, yeah- I've had a very rich, full career, and if anyone asks, I always tell them - life is good! If there's one disappointment, it's that jazz continues to be a niche artform, with far smaller audiences than it deserves.

"Partially that's down to older jazz fans dying off, I guess, but also, a lot of good players fall away 'cause they need to make a more predictable living. There's a lot of young people studying jazz at high school and university here in the States, but then most of them change their majors to medicine or law rather than start bands. That doesn't lead to a whole lot of great new records, but you probably got a lot of doctors and lawyers right now who can hold a tune."

Headlining the Cavell Leitch 2016 New Zealand Jazz and Blues Festival in Christchurch, the Ramsey Lewis Quartet play at the newly reopened Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch on Thursday 26 May. Tickets via Ticketek. Full festival programme at www.jazzbluesfestival.co.nz .

 - Stuff

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