Oct. 14 2009 12:00 AM

Jazzman Ramsey Lewis has a creative renaissance


Two score and four years ago, in a small Washington jazz club called the Bohemian Cavern, Ramsey Lewis issued a national proclamation of funk. At the butt end of a hot Thursday gig, the pianist and his trio decided to toss in a quick R&B tune. “At that time, to us, it was just a fun song,” Lewis said. “Like the dessert to a meal.”

As tapes rolled, the crowd started to moan and whoop. The irresistible party vibe pushed “The In Crowd” to No. 5 on American charts in 1965 — one of the biggest pop hits ever to come out of jazz.

“Believe me, it was a total surprise,” Lewis said.

Half a lifetime later, at 74, Lewis is having a major rebirth as a composer. He has distilled his recent work into a grand and gorgeous new CD, “Songs From the Heart,” and he will bring his classic trio to the Wharton Center on Oct. 21.

“I feel like I’m 12 years old all over again, discovering a whole new world,” Lewis said in a phone interview from a tour stop in Los Angeles.

Lewis’ sudden composing binge began in 2006, when he wrote an hour-long piece for his trio to play with the Joffrey Ballet.

It was daunting at first. “I went through several weeks of sheer torture,” he said. “I couldn’t get the great ballet writers out of my head — Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.”

His wife saw that he was struggling, and she suggested he simply noodle at the piano, as usual, only with a tape recorder running.

On playback, he heard dozens of ideas worth developing. “John Coltrane used to turn a tape recorder on and practice, and now I see why,” he said. “In jazz, you get a habit of throwing those ideas out and thinking they’re always gonna come. You don’t realize that some of them could be gems.”

He also thought of all the great solos he and other jazzmen have played into thin air over the years.

“I’ve probably thrown away a couple of hundred songs, if not a couple of thousand,” he said.

The ballet lured Lewis into a series of projects centered on Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, where he is jazz artistic director. A year after the Joffrey project, he wrote “Muses and Amusements,” another set of songs to play with the Turtle Island String Quartet. This spring, he premiered “Proclamation of Hope,” a mammoth, twohour oratorio written for Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

The work was fresh yet familiar to him.

“I found out composing, for jazz musicians, is similar to improvising a solo, only in slow motion,” he said. “You’re taking time to write out the idea — and you get to edit.”

The insights he gained cut two ways. “It made me look at my soloing and get even deeper into my harmonies when I’m performing,” he said.

Growing up in Chicago, where he still lives today, Lewis went through an early infatuation with classical composers, like Bach and Mozart, then he got “hot and heavy” into playing gospel music in church. He fell in love with jazz in his mid-teens.

“Nobody in my family or my circle of friends ever said, ‘You shouldn’t be playing this or that,’” he said.

“I lived in a multicultural neighborhood and went to a multicultural high school. I learned to respect other people’s way of thinking and creating.”

But after Lewis issued his first jazz recording in 1956, a reviewer was puzzled.

“That was the first time I heard a reaction from the jazz police,” Lewis said. “Is he this or is he that? He just couldn’t pigeon hole me. That’s the first time I got a notion that people like to put you in a box.”

It wasn’t the last time critics would spank Lewis for his alleged commercialism and deviations from pure jazz. But all of Lewis’ music, commercial or “serious,” glows with the same seductive joy. Even at the height of his electric funk period, around 1980, there was no mistaking his expansive, uplifting lyricism. Trading saucy licks with a porkchop electric bass, spinning arpeggios out of Franz Liszt, skating on disco boogie, flirting with new-age spaciness or preacherteasing a crowd with raunchy blues, Lewis has always been an affirmer.

“Yeah, I’m a positive guy, and that probably comes through in my music,” he said. “I’d rather people leave a concert inspired or uplifted than feeling I put something heavy on their mind to go home and think about — maybe have a nightmare.”

Lewis still knows how to please a crowd. His present trio finds him at a career peak of soulfulness and lyricism. But for sheer fun, it will be hard to top that night in D.C. in 1965.

“Man, when they started clapping their hands and keeping the beat, halfway singing with us, and a couple of people stood up and started dancing, it floored us,” he said. “We were giggling at each other and having a good time.”

A couple of months after “The In Crowd” happened, Lewis was in Detroit when a call came from Chess Records: “You guys have a hit.”

“It was the result of the reaction of the people from that crowd at the Bohemian Cavern,” Lewis said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Lewis shares the bill at Wharton Center with composer and singer Ann Hampton Callaway, a ubiquitous presence in American media these days. Callaway has not only sung the entire Great American Songbook, but she has practically doubled it with hundreds of songs she’s written for musicals and artists like Barbra Streisand, Carole King and Blossom Dearie. Calloway and Lewis will each perform with their own combos, then join for a closer.

Ramsey Lewis Trio

With Ann Hampton Callaway 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 The Wharton Center’s Cobb Great Hall $22-$44 1 (800) WHARTON www.whartoncenter.com