Ramsey Lewis

Upendo Ni Pamoja/Sun Goddess

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Ramsey Lewis will always be most known for his 1960s soul-jazz hits. Like many popular soul-jazz performers of his era, however, he continued to record after his commercial success had peaked, moving into different styles as trends changed. This two-CD set reissues a couple of his outings from the first half of the 1970s, 1972's Upendo Ni Pamoja and 1974's Sun Goddess. The 1972 album is by far the most impressive one, and though it's possible it might not appeal to fans of the much poppier, more lighthearted work from his run as a mid-'60s pop star of sorts, it's a quite respectable move into funkier grooves. Still working as the head of a trio (though with different musicians from his earlier hit records), Lewis plays both standard and Fender Rhodes electric piano on an instrumental set devoted entirely to outside material, including covers of the then-recent soul hits "Slipping into Darkness" and "Got to Be There." The mood is more free-flowing than his records from the previous decade, and though it's still on the more accessible side of soul-jazz, it's not so slick as to fade into background music. He gets into more adventurous territory on the second half of the album, showing the influence of Latin, classical, and even some Miles Davis-ish fusion. While it won't find the acclaim of the pioneering efforts by Davis and his sidemen, it's decent mildly progressive soul-jazz, with a more contemplative, serious, and slightly mysterious air than the sound with which Lewis is most associated. Sun Goddess, in contrast, is both more commercial and far less impressive, with far more debts to advancing mid-'70s disco and urban contemporary trends. Horn and string arrangements gloss up the largely Lewis-written material, with Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White co-writing and playing drums on a couple of the songs. The influence of Stevie Wonder is felt not only in a cover of "Living for the City," but also Lewis' use of synthesizer in addition to his acoustic and electric keyboards. It's on the tougher side of smooth soul-jazz for the most part, livened up by some occasional scat vocals, especially on the whimsical "Jungle Strut," which sounds like it could have been a hit single with its interplay between animal noise-like vocals and goofy Lewis licks. It wasn't a hit, but the album was, reaching number 12 on the pop charts.