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Populist Jazz Pioneer

In praise of the unstoppable Ramsey Lewis



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By Gabe Meline

A crossover hitmaker, a soul-jazz pioneer, a sampladelic breakbeat artifact, a vital radio host--Chicago native Ramsey Lewis has been many things in his 40-year career, but one thing he has never been is elitist. As a Grammy-winning interpreter of pop hits like "Hang On Sloopy" or his still-signature knockout tune, "The 'In' Crowd," Lewis hijacked the minds of a 1960s America that bought records at the drug store and infused in them the language of post-bop piano. He appears March 7 in Napa.

Top-selling albums like The 'In' Crowd and Wade in the Water contained the stylistic basis for a generation of pianists to come, and even today their groove remains fresh and lively. No one expected Lewis to stay in a rut, and for most of the 1970s he joined his many contemporaries in exploring electric-based fusion, resulting in the slick, funky sound of commercial successes like 1974's Sun Goddess. These days, between occasional performances and royalty checks from hip-hop samples, Lewis hosts Legends of Jazz, a radio show about early jazz innovators, ironically syndicated to the smooth-jazz radio market. His most recent album, With One Voice, draws from gospel roots and features the choir from his sister's church, but in concert he offers adroit, reprised versions of his hits, interspersed with tasteful surprises from the Great American Songbook. At 71, Lewis doesn't get out much, but when he does, he continues to stealthily deliver true jazz to middle America.

Ramsey Lewis performs with his trio on Wednesday, March 7, at the Napa Valley Opera House. 1030 Main St., Napa. 8pm. $55. 707.226.7372.


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