Wednesday night I attended Ramsey Lewis' performance at Jazz at the Bistro, located on Washington Street across from the Fox Theater. Lewis is the current feature for the Jazz St. Louis 2011-2012 season. His career spans over five decades and includes three Grammy awards. Pianist Ramsey performed with his newly assembled quintet that includes Henry Johnson (guitar), Tim Gant (keyboards), Joshua Ramos (bass) and Charles Heath (drums). The electric band is in town for a four-night series that includes both 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. sets.
Jazz at the Bistro is a common venue for the St. Louis jazz scene. Many jazz acts, local and national, frequent the wedge building in Midtown. St. Louisans that enjoy a combination of jazz and casual dining are likely to be familiar with the location. For those who are not familiar with it, Jazz at the Bistro is a two-story restaurant and intimate concert venue with a small stage located on the ground level.
Ramsey Lewis and his electric band came out for their second set at 9:30 p.m. sharp. To the stage walked five well-dressed gentlemen who were ready to perform. Five suits inched their way across the narrow stage before separating between the scattered instruments to take their places. Without delay they jumped right into the night.
The opening was luscious. There is something about the opening numbers of jazz performances that never ceases to amaze the audience. It seems as if the band pulls some magical collection of chords and notes out of thin air to create a mystical melody that you replay in your thoughts throughout the entire night. However that process works, Ramsey and his electric band accomplished it. Their introduction blended traditional jazz with contemporary style to produce the perfect balance of smoothness and rhythm.
Speaking into the microphone, Mr. Lewis welcomed the crowd to the "midnight, not quite" set. After making his opening statements he led the band into the selection "Love Song." The piano-driven tune evoked a calming effect with the grace and tranquility that is synonymous with love. By the end of the piece the crowd was feeling the joy. "That'll work!" uttered an attendee in approval. The nice thing about small intimate performances is that you can see and hear each audience member making a personal connection to the music.
The quintet carried on with their rendition of "Oh Happy Day." Ramos on bass reminded me of how small the Bistro's stage was as tried to groove in a stiff posture to prevent from bumping into Johnson who was to his right. A full-sized piano, a second piano, two keyboards, bass and guitar complete with separate amps, additional audio equipment and five musicians doesn't leave much room for movement in a corner the size of an SUV and a half. Nevertheless, their performance did not suffer from the cramped space one bit.
When he performs, Mr. Lewis comes across as a peacefully simple man. His music speaks like a grandfather telling a story from a park bench in Central Park with a casual breeze. Ramsey gently tapped each key to fulfill his composition. He was so peaceful in his solo that you could hear each cube of ice falling as a waiter poured water from a pitcher.
One train wreck of a pour interrupted Lewis. Pausing with restrained frustration, he declared, "The young man pouring the water, I'm going to see him later." The pouring of the water and an endlessly ringing cell phone no one wanted to own up to provided comic relief as Ramsey made wise cracks.
Each member of the Electric Band had their chance to shine with solos that boarded on upstaging Lewis' peaceful playing. The most notable came from Grant on the keyboard with his quick keystrokes that he sustained with his right hand while his left adjusted settings on the control panel. Like a tenured professor, Ramsey came back in a stunning showcase of skill and speed that showed who the teacher and originator really was.
In sum, Ramsey Lewis Electric Band put on a marvelous performance that left the audience pleased as they received their dinner checks to end the night. The band presented a selection that was just right. He is more than welcome to return to St. Louis in the future as he continues on his "Sun Goddess" tour.