Most artists' idea of giving back to their communities involves some sort of charitable work or financial contribution. On Urban Knights III, legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis reaches deeper, forgoing the the all-star jam concepts of the first two Urban Knights projects (which featured everyone from the late Grover Washington, Jr. to producer Maurice White), and cultivating some of Chicago's most deserving local R&B and jazz talents. Most of the featured players have deals with Lewis' Ivory Pyramid Productions. These core band members consist of keyboardist Kevin Randolph, bassist Sharay Reed, drummer Calvin Rogers, and percussionist Alejo Poveda, as well as the all-female vocal group the Staples (cousins of the famed Staple Singers) and vocalists Tammi and Hardeman. Despite his attempts at being just a supporting member of the band, Lewis can't help but stand out with his glittery, high-register glissandos on the moody "Until We Meet Again" and his crisp ivory improvisations off the kindly melody of "You're the One for Me." Just when you think he's settling in for too many pleasantries, he starts jamming with his able charges on the retro-minded, percussion-aggressive "Far and Away" (with Lewis banging away on electric piano) and on the autobiographical, throbbing bass-driven "Sweet Home Chicago." "Strung Out" isn't the most original R&B ballad in the world, but Lewis makes a great discovery in the towering vocalist Hardeman. With such great young players, one wonders why Lewis couldn't resist the commercial potential of having Dave Koz simmer on "Dancing Angels" and having Earl Klugh and Fareed Haque engage in the playful, steel string-classical guitar duel "Gypsy." Great tunes, but they're bound to take the focus off the kids.
AllMusic Review by Jonathan Widran