Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Ramsey Lewis Trio - Sound Of Christmas

Last month, my family and I made the trek from Fort Wayne to Chicago for our annual Christmas weekend getaway.

We stayed at the Chicago Marriott - Magnificent Mile, located right on Michigan Avenue. We've stayed at this hotel many times thanks in large part to its proximity to the landmarks, shopping, and location to the Virgin Megastore (in the same building - sweet!).

Over the past three years, some of the titles I have purchased during these trips have been Jo Stafford, Barenaked Ladies, Happy Holidays V4, and the Ultimate Christmas Cocktails box set.

During my most recent trip, I was determined to find a copy of "Happy Holidays: A Very Special Christmas Album" by Billy Idol. Virgin had many copies in stock; all imported copies from Germany. Their asking price was a whopping $25.

I debated, put it back, picked it up, debated some more, and finally decided that was too much to pay for any CD. I figured I could buy two CDs for that price and that's exactly what I did. This is find number one (check back tomorrow for find number two).

It's fitting that I found this CD in Chicago - it's where Ramsey Lewis was born and received his first piano lesson at the impressionable age of four. Lewis continued to study piano under a teacher named Dorothy Mendelson that helped him to peak his interest in music. By 15, Lewis was a whiz on the keys and was asked by a friend to play in his jazz band. Ramsey had found his calling.

Forming a small trio (Ramsey on piano, Eldee Young on bass, Red Holt on drums), they began performing in Chicago where they caught the ear of Danny O'Dailey, a local Chicago DJ. O'Dailey helped the trio secure their first recording contract with Argo Records, the jazz subsidiary of the legendary Chess Records, and stayed for the next fifteen years. Between 1956 and 1961, they released their nine albums - three alone in 1961, including their Christmas album.

This is a great jazz Christmas album. The average length of the ten tracks are around three minutes in length which will appeal to the non-jazz ear. The first five tracks (Side 1), Lewis' piano changes from light and bouncy to hard and jazzy then to soft and bluesy from song to song, sometimes in the same song all with the slightest of ease. Every track is a lesson in jazz 101.

The second five tracks (Side 2) utilize an orchestra along with the trio. For many jazz purists, bringing an orchestra in to help out is one step short of sacrilege. On this album, it's a perfect match.

TRACK REVIEWS (Use the track listing above):

1.) Features some jaw dropping piano work by Ramsey - a GREAT version of this song!
2.) Starts off light, then settles into some fine jazz.
3.) A slow jazz version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town"? Be still, my heart!
4.) Ramsey's own composition - it deserves to be heard at Christmas! MMMmmM!
5.) Has a great Latin feel to it... "Here Comes Santa Claus" cha cha cha!
6.) Another Ramsey composition - the strings are a bolt out of left field but WOW! By far, the standout track!
7.) A perfect version of this song (no offense Nat!).
8.) A symphony in strings and jazz which takes "God Rest Ye" from carol to classic.
9.) More Latin feel - and with the orchestra along for the ride, it's worth the trip.
10.) Lush, jazzy, romantic. An outstanding track that concludes an outstanding effort.

The Ramsey Lewis Trio continued to break new ground in later years. In 1965, their instrumental "The In Crowd" reached #4 on the pop charts - at the very height of the British Invasion! Three other singles between 1965 and 1966 ("Hang On Sloopy", "A Hard Day's Night", and "Wade In The Water") were also Top 40 hits.

Ramsey has continued to record (averages about one album a year) and perform with his trio. He produced a successful PBS series entitled "Legends Of Jazz" and has hosted his own morning radio program for WNUA-FM in Chicago since 1997. Broadcast Architecture began syndicating Ramsey's program last month over its "Smooth Jazz Network".

I think I made the right choice putting down Billy Idol in favor of this one.

UP NEXT: Those guys recorded a Christmas album back in the day?



Jeff said...

Track 4 -- Christmas Blues -- I taped off the radio in Madison, Wisconsin, 20 years ago. It was part of a Christmas show on the local indie radio station. I never knew what it was until this year, when I bought this CD. You are correct on all counts in the review (and on Bootsy, my other purchase this year).

CaptainOT said...

Jeff - I'm glad you enjoyed both of my reviews and your comments as well! Thank you!