25 years later, Ramsey Lewis keeps the favorites fresh

Ramsey Lewis has always been a real crowd pleaser, so it only seems right to have the pianist known for "The In Crowd" kick off a series of free jazz and R&B; concert in Charles Center Plaza from 7 to 10 tonight.

As if that series didn't offer enough free jazz, there's a second one starting Saturday night at the Harborplace Amphitheatre, where Spur of the Moment plays to a waterfront crowd from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.


When Mr. Lewis brings his good-natured bluesy funk to Baltimore tonight, he'll be accompanied by a quintet whose members with one exception appear with him on his most recent recording, "Sky Islands." His second album with the GRP label after a five-year hiatus from recording, "Sky Islands" goes out of its way to appeal to a variety of musical tastes.

"I wanted to put some things in there for the fans who've been with me for years and also some things we play that'd be attractive to younger people," the 59-year-old Chicago native says in a telephone interview.


This translates to a medley of his big hits "Wade in the Water," "Hang on Sloopy" and "The In Crowd"; his take on songs by the likes of Janet Jackson, the Beatles and Lionel Richie; a number with former band member Maurice White, who went on to fame with Earth, Wind & Fire; and a number co-written by two of Mr. Lewis' sons, Robert and Frayne.

Asked how he felt about re-recording numbers that made him a star a quarter-century ago, the pianist laughingly balks at being termed a "prisoner of success."

He explains that he wasn't initially in favor of the hits medley, but agreed to GRP's request with the understanding that it would only be for the recording's European release. "I said yes to it, because in European countries when they love you they love you forever. They're still playing those numbers in Europe."

Then the GRP market research types pressed their case that Mr. Lewis' American fans would like to hear that medley, too. So the domestic pressing of "Sky Islands" incorporates it as well. "If people in the United States still want to hear them, far be it for me to say otherwise," says Mr. Lewis, who regularly plays these signature numbers in concert.

How does he keep them sounding lively when performing them for the umpteenth time?

"When I play one of them, around 40 percent will be the notes that were on the original, but on any given night 60 to 70 percent will be what we feel at the moment. I'm definitely going to play those numbers, but the only way to play them is to play them fresh. If we played them the same way every night, note for note, I'd shoot myself.

"Fortunately in jazz, there's room to roam. You state the theme, but you needn't do it the same way every time. There's a challenge in how many ways you can play something and find new things to say without getting too far away from it."

There also are emotional associations with these numbers that keep the feeling alive.


"Those songs were stepping stones in my career. Times weren't terrible [in the 1950s and early 1960s], but there wasn't a lot of money being made before 'The In Crowd.' So [those numbers] represent phases in my life, the sense of approval I received."

Indeed, Mr. Lewis had cut 17 albums before "The In Crowd" made him a name in more than jazz households. By mining pop music for so much of his chart-topping repertory, he helped pave the way for the jazz fusion of the 1970s. He also incurred the wrath of jazz purists who felt that with every album he sold he was selling out even more.

"Every jazz artist that ever sold a ton of records suffers from the attitude of hard-core jazz fans who for some reason do not appreciate your being successful. It's a closed society in which they know all about this trio or that trio and you don't. My attitude is this: If there's a million and one people lined up against the wall and they all like it except for that one person who thinks it's a bunch of 'BS,' who are you gonna listen to?"


To hear excerpts of Ramsey Lewis' "Sky Islands," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6237 after you hear the greeting.