Ramsey Lewis and Long-Time Band Urban Knights Bring Funky Energy To ‘Retirement’ Album ‘VI’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Sadly, keyboard wizard Ramsey Lewis is retiring but, as one would expect, he goes out on a high note here with VII, apparently his last statement with his long-time electric funk band, Urban Knights.  The now 84-year-old Lewis announced his retirement in 2018 as he entered the studio to record this expansive set of tunes. Lewis, a three-time Grammy winner and NEA Jazz Master came to fame largely with his acoustic trio and the radio hits “In Crowd,” Hang On the early ‘90s. Modeled on such reputable groups as Donald Byrd’s Blackbyrds and Joe Sample’s Jazz Crusaders, the mainstays of the band are Chicagoans – Grammy-nominated guitarist Henry Johnson, bassist Joshua Ramos, and drummer Charles Heath. Keyboardist Tim Gant is the newest member. It’s a unit that according to Lewis, will continue to perform.

As expected some of this is retro in nature, recalling the Lewis classics of the ‘70s and ‘80s albums like Sun Goddess (1974), Love Notes (1977) and Three Piece Suite (1981. Lewis loves to revisit and rearrange his earlier material and takes that tact here “Tequila Mockingbird,” Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” and “Sharing Her Journey.” He’s also been known to put his spin on tunes from others. You could say he’s made a career of it. Here he reshapes Sting’s “The Shape of My Heart” with guest vocalist Dee Alexander, whom Lewis compares to Ella, Sarah, and Dinah in his notes. The Beatles are represented with a laid-back, piano-lounge type version of “And I Love Her” while “The Rose” sparkles from the contributions of guest trumpeter Maurice Brown. Lewis begins the album solo with Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” and closes solo with “Trees,” a song he owes to his father. 

Apart from the two solo outings, there are several tunes that feature Lewis’s signature elegant and lyrical acoustic piano. He shares the spotlight with Johnson on “Sharing Her Journey” and “Baby, What You Want Me to Do” while getting primary focus on “The Spark,” “I’ll Never Forget You” and “And I Love Her.” Other tunes like “Tequila Mockingbird “(Heath and Gant) and “Armando’s Rhumba” (Joshua Ramos) put other band members first as stated parenthetically.

To realize that Lewis made his first recording in 1956, that his bands have spurned the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, and has influenced artists ranging from Dr. John to Stevie Wonder, Ramsey Lewis leaves us an enduring legacy.  Here he still sounds vibrant, soulful, and energetic. As the oft-quoted adage says, “go out on top.”

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