When I interviewed pianist Ramsey Lewis last week, he told me that "he could go the grave with [his] band." After hearing the second of two shows on Friday at the Manchester Craftmen's Guild's Jazz Hall, I understood why.
It was able to handle with ease his entire repertoire, which included standards, his acoustic pop hits such as "The 'In' Crowd" and "Hang On Sloopy," a medley of gospel music that he does at every show and even electric-oriented material such as "Sun Goddess." And it did that so well that it had the audience in its hand pretty much from the start.
The evening started with "Brazilica," which featured a pretty solid groove throughout and background vocals from guitarist Henry Johnson and electric keyboardist Tim Gant. It must have been nice up there because Mr. Lewis even refrained from playing for a few choruses, allowing the guys to cut loose; when Mr. Lewis did play he incorporated a line from "Isn't It Romantic" into his solo. The original "As Summer Fades Away," which recalled "My Funny Valentine," featured bassist Joshua Ramos bowing an acoustic upright.
The pretty ballad "Close Your Eyes" Mr. Lewis said was intended as a tribute to composer-keyboardist Charles Stepney, who originally produced the band Earth, Wind & Fire. Stepney died in 1976. But to show Mr. Lewis' -- as well as the band's -- virtuosity, he pulled out "Body and Soul" and the Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere" as solo pieces, with the band moving into the Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly, Wow."
As a child Mr. Lewis played in church; in tribute to those days he has always performed a number of hymns in concert, and they got by far the most audience response. "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," "Blessed Assurance," "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior" -- which really got the hands going -- and "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," the last allowing Mr. Gant, playing synthesized Hammond organ, and Mr. Lewis to do call-and-response, were the songs I recognized and they closed the show.
Of course Mr. Lewis saved his best-known numbers for the encore -- "Wade in the Water," yet another hymn that became a hit in its own right; the cover of "Hang On Sloopy"; and, of course, "The 'In' Crowd," had the group ambling off the stage.
But there was one song missing, the one for which he put together this band in the first place. When the guys returned for the second encore, Mr. Lewis said the next song required audience participation, and Mr. Johnson strummed those initial suspended chords, making the show complete.
Yes, I'm talking about "Sun Goddess," the original recording of which included several members of EWF and which obliged the audience to sing "Way-o, way-ay-o / Ba-ba way-o, way-ay-o" with Mr. Johnson and Mr. Gant. The ending allowed drummer Charles Heath to bash a bit.
If there was a less-than-stellar moment, it was when Mr. Ramos did a hard-to-hear pizzicato bass solo on "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." It seems for some reason that acoustic bass never mixes well at the Guild.
Rick Nowlin: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3871.