Friday, December 25, 2015

A Soulful Christmas with Ramsey Lewis

The Ramsey Lewis Trio
Every year, as the holiday season approaches, it seems to me that the holiday spirit definitely feels much better when the music sounds soulful and jazzy, and even better when it has a touch of the blues. So after re-reading a record tip I submitted to the Friends of Jan Lundgren website about a year ago, I've decided to post briefly about one of my favorite Christmas albums—Sound of Christmas, by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Cut in October 1961 for the Argo label (a Chess subsidiary) at Chicago's Ter-Mar studios, the original LP came out about three years before Lewis's memorable "The In-Crowd," but by this time, the pianist was already earning a reputation as one of the most soulful jazzmen on the scene, a pioneer of what would become known as soul jazz. This can be heard on all ten tracks of his exciting Christmas album (which was reissued on CD by Verve in 2004) both in his treatment of Yuletide evergreens and in the two original compositions that Lewis contributed to these sessions.

Though the soulful atmosphere is present throughout, the two sides of the record are markedly different. The five tracks on the first side find Lewis on piano in a trio setting alongside Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums. They take Johnny Mercer's "Winter Wonderland" at an appropriately bouncy tempo and infuse "Here Comes Santa Claus" with an irresistible R&B beat that makes it one of the highlights of the album. Lewis slows down "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" considerably, and shows that the blues is an important ingredient of his musical recipe on "Merry Christmas, Baby" (another standout) and his own "Christmas Blues." The second side is also comprised of five tunes, but this time the trio is augmented by string arrangements by Riley Hampton. Lewis's "The Sound of Christmas" begins with a semiclassical introduction, but it soon becomes clear that the spotlight is still on the pianist, who occasionally switches to celesta on some tracks, such as a beautiful reading of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." The old traditional carol "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is reinvented from a R&B perspective, and "Sleigh Ride" sounds as festive as it should. Finally, Hampton's strings embellish "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" but stay out of the way as Lewis turns in a wonderful, wistful performance, almost as though he were playing just for himself and being merely overheard by the microphones. The sounds that Lewis creates for Christmas are always surprising and engaging, making this the perfect record to play if one wants to bring a bluesy, soulful strain to the holiday season.

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