On the heels of announcing his retirement in 2018, the then-83-year-old Ramsey Lewis entered the studio with his longtime crossover funk outfit Urban Knights to record 2019's earthy and stylistically expansive VII. A group originally conceived in the early '90s in the vein of such iconic ensembles as Donald Byrd's Blackbyrds and Joe Sample's Jazz Crusaders, Urban Knights found Lewis collaborating with a bevy of younger musicians and star guests over the years, and VII continues this fruitful tradition. Joining Lewis here is a newly convened Urban Knights ensemble featuring a lineup of noted Chicago-area performers including keyboardist Tim Grant, guitarist Henry Johnson, bassist Joshua Ramos, and drummer Charles Heath. Together they play a vibrant blend of soul-jazz that evokes Lewis' classic '70s and '80s albums like 1974's Sun Goddess, 1977's Love Notes, and 1981's Three Piece Suite. In fact, on VII, Lewis revisits a handful of his past tracks including the disco-era title track to his 1977 album "Tequila Mockingbird," "Baby What You Want Me To Do" off 1981's Live at the Savoy, and "Sharing Her Journey" off 2009's Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey. He achieves yet more old-school flavor elsewhere reworking Sting's "Shape of My Heart" with vocalist Dee Alexander, and offering a burnished, loungey reading of the Beatles' "And I Love Her." Also evocative is "The Rose," a laid-back and soulful groover featuring trumpeter Maurice Brown. There are two superb solo numbers from Lewis in "Dear Lord" and "Trees," both of which spotlight his elegant, deeply lyrical piano artistry. While it may come in the wake of Lewis entering the final years of his career, VII sparks with the energy and vitality of an artist at the peak of his abilities.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar