Ramsey Lewis / Ramsey Lewis Trio

The Ramsey Lewis Trio at the Bohemian Caverns

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Astoundingly, Ramsey Lewis released a total of six albums in 1964 alone, which brought his total as a bandleader to 14 in eight years on the scene -- 15 if you include an early best-of. While it was not uncommon for a musician to release more than one album a year in those heady days, six was ambitious by anybody's standards. Live at the Bohemia Caverns (in Washington D.C.) was Lewis' second live date, and one that provided a blueprint for the later live dates that would put him near the top of the pop charts a year later with The In Crowd. The material on this set was very ambitious. Along with bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, Lewis began the show with a long medley from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, comprising the tunes "Somewhere" (which bookends it), "Maria," and "Jet Song." It is a dramatic way to start an evening -- especially since the texture of the first tune in the medley features Young switching to arco playing on his double bass. But it's a charmer. You can tell an audience is in the building, but they are quiet and understandably moved. Lewis' discipline and classical training are on display here in spades and he is way up to the challenge, especially as he improvises on the changes before Holt kicks it with his cowbell on "Maria," introducing a full-blown, tough soul-jazz workout before it closes. The band kicks it with a bossa nova reading of "People (Who Need People)" as a way of bringing the more than likely stunned audience back to the reason they made it to the gig in the first place. It's gentle but it swings and it is full of subtle touches from the rhythm section, with Lewis moving in and out of blues and soul and back to a genteel hard bop. These two cuts make the first side, but the fireworks really start with the finger-popping reading of Chris Kenner's R&B classic "Something You've Got," which was popular at the time, and some female fans in the crowd begin singing the chorus and everybody else claps. The wild thing is that Young is alternately playing and bowing his bass -- way funky but cool. The only argument with Lewis' sets at this time was his nearly irritating method of following each uptempo workout with a ballad. He does that here with a very slow, elegant but sleepy reading of "Fly Me to the Moon." In contrast to the cooking that went on just a couple of moments ago, it could make one lose the vibe. Thankfully, the trio gets right back to it with a smoking, over the top version of Willie Dixon's blues standard "My Babe," which is a showcase for Young's soloing ability -- he carries the melody, as well as improvising on it, and with Holt's hi hat-snare shuffle in double-time, it pushes thing into the realm of the ecstatic. Lewis follows it with his only original, a roughshod piano blues jam called "The Caves," improvised no doubt for the date. Doesn't matter, it's a killer 12-bar with Ramsey pulling out his gospel and R&B chops to weave through his beautiful hard bop phrasing. The reworking of the country classic, "The Shelter of Your Arms" that closes this set is a knotty little workout with some great work by Holt, who precedes the beat just a bit, moving it through a series of wily changes in tempo and melody. Ramsey begins by using Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" in his solo and then decides to work the tune in against the original melody, and it brings the house down. This is a hip date with that one distraction, and like all of his Argo and Cadet live sides, should be chased down.

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