RAMSEY LEWIS: Routes/ Three Piece Suite (Robin Songs)

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If awards were given for being prolific then Ramsey Lewis would a serious contender. The Chicago pianist made his debut in 1956 and has never stopped recording since. In fact he’d recorded 16 albums before he even smelled a hit… that, of course, being his phenomenal version of ‘The In Crowd’. His trio’s 1965, swinging, live version of the Dobie Gray tune made him one of Chess Record’s biggest earners; it also led to the breakup of his first trio – with drummer Isaac Red Holt and bassist Eldee Young going on to their own success as Young Holt Unlimited. To replace Holt, Lewis recruited Chess session drummer Maurice White and the hits continued but as time went on Chess folded and Lewis signed to Columbia while White,of course,  went on to create Earth Wind And Fire.

In 1974 White and Lewis joined forces again with the drummer helping the piano man to deliver another massive hit with ‘Sun Goddess’. That tune and the album represented a change of direction for Lewis. Featuring electronic instruments and spectral vocals, Ramsey Lewis was reinvented and you can hear the extent of that reinvention on this new Robin Songs twofer. It focuses on a pair of Lewis albums from what we could call Ramsey Lewis’ “Maurice White era”…. 1980’s ‘Routes’ and ’81’s ‘Three Piece Suite’. The former was produced by EWF keyboardist Larry Dunn and it strives – particularly in the opening cut, ‘Whisper Zone’ – to evoke the feel of ‘Sun Goddess’. New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint was also involved in the album – providing a quartet of tunes while sidemen include Al McKay, James Gadson, Louis Saterfield, Ndugu Chancler and Keni Burke.

‘Three Piece Suite’, produced by Chicago’s Tom Tom ’84, has elements of the “new Lewis” but it essentially  harks back to Lewis’ Chess era and is a much more intimate affair than ‘Routes’ … softer and jazzier – as evidenced by a sweet cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘She’s Out Of My Life’. In fairness, neither album is an essential part of Ramsey Lewis’ canon… but Lewis collectors will be pleased to be able to re-access both these long-deleted affairs.

(BB) 3/5