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Massry Center for the Arts
College of St. Rose
Albany, NY
April 29, 2011

by J Hunter

I went to a concert the other night, and instead I got an education. Mind you, that’s the way the evening’s honoree would have wanted it.

The show was originally going to feature the Billy Taylor Trio, and we were going to celebrate Dr. Taylor’s 90th birthday year. Unfortunately, Billy Taylor passed away December, which means jazz lost one of its greatest boosters and influences. But in another example of how good can come out of bad, Laura Hartmann – a CSR alum – was able to convince Taylor’s longtime friend (and sometime duet partner) Ramsey Lewis in to pinch-hit.

Now, as anyone who saw him play the Main Stage at Freihofer’s last year can tell you, a Ramsey Lewis show is always a treat. And this was going to be a very rare solo-piano performance, so there’s your added value. But here’s where the education comes in: Hartmann was Taylor’s representative for several years, which means she dealt with Taylor almost every day. So before Lewis sat down at the Picotte Recital Hall’s marvelous piano, Lewis and Hartmann sat down in chairs placed in front of the piano and spoke about their mutual friend for over half an hour.

The Q&A was prefaced by a snippet from Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” The Taylor composition was one of Simone’s biggest hits, but the genesis of the song (as told by Hartmann during her introduction) is much more interesting: It seems Taylor’s daughter was being taught how to sing Baptist spirituals in school… by white Catholic nuns. When Taylor played her the songs in their original form, his daughter firmly corrected him: “No, daddy, that’s wrong!” As a result, Taylor went to the piano and wrote “I Wish” in about 15 minutes, and it went on to become one of the major anthems of the civil-rights movement.

When Lewis joined Hartmann onstage, they both talked about the myriad number of phone conversations each of them had with Taylor over the years. They laughed about having the same experience with Taylor: Calling him up to see how he was, and then having him almost immediately say, “But what how are you doing? What are you up to?” They agreed on Lewis’ view that “When you finished talking to Billy Taylor, you felt better about life. You felt better about people. You felt better about everything!” That said, Lewis interjected, “Most of the time I was talking to Billy, I was listening… because I knew what was up.” Among many friendly recommendations, Taylor had encouraged Lewis to play solo, and write more music. This led to Lewis composing an eight-movement suite that was performed with the Joffrey Ballet.

You could hear a pin drop as Lewis talked about how Taylor opined that we don’t celebrate the music that originated here. “Billy saw the need for keeping this music alive,” Lewis asserted. It was Taylor who said, “Jazz is America’s classical music” and did his best to bring it to people any way he could – through his involvement with various television shows, his syndicated radio show, and with the annual New York summer thing Jazzmobile, which still takes major artists to under-served communities in the five boroughs. While Lewis had never played on Jazzmobile, Hartmann’s professional relationship with Taylor had her deeply involved with it, and her eyes were bright as she detailed the program for people who might not have heard of it. By the time Hartmann and Lewis finished, you had no doubt that (in Lewis’ words) “Billy saw himself as a musician, but he also saw himself as a human being.”

Oh, the concert? It was what you’d expect – amazing. Hartmann had introduced him as “the ever-elegant Ramsey Lewis”, and that went far beyond his dapper grey suit. Every note was right where it should have been, even during the heavier movements of “Perchance”, a movement from the Joffrey piece, or when Lewis went off the reservation on another new piece. “Sometimes I find it convenient to use the music as guidelines,” he said, suppressing a smile. “Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean you can’t change it.”

Highlights? How about a sterling medley of Lennon & McCartney’s “Here, There and Everywhere” and Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night”, with a side order of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”? How about a hushed take on John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” that couldn’t even be ruined by some idiot shooting pictures like Machine Gun Kelly? We got Lewis’ take on “I Wish” and another Taylor tune, “Mood for Mendes.” Lewis’ encore of “I Remember April” was a sly callback to a funny story about Lewis’ first meeting with Billy, but the result was both personal and intimate.

Of course, there was “The In Crowd”, mixed up with “Wade in the Water.” But it was what came before – the stories, the experiences, the laughter and the learning – that made this a genuinely special evening.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.