From Jazz to Gospel 'With One Voice'

Ramsey Lewis

hide captionRamsey Lewis turns to gospel with his latest album.

Ramsey Lewis, a composer known for his jazz work, has focused on the gospel sound for a new CD, With One Voice. He tells Ed Gordon about the experience.

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ED GORDON, host:

Pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis has a long history in swing music and popular jazz. His latest CD, "With One Voice," finds the veteran artist returning to his first love, gospel.

(Soundbite of music)

Choir: (Singing) Save your holy Savior, in my heart, oh, God.

GORDON: For help with this new CD, Lewis recruited gospel powerhouse Smokey Norful. Darius Brooks and the James Memorial AME choir church also joined Lewis on this collection of original and traditional gospel tunes. The entire disc shows Lewis' love for spiritual music, a passion he nurtured even as he composed pop hits during the 1960s and '70s.

Mr. RAMSEY LEWIS (Composer): Every show, every concert that I performed, somewhere during there, usually at the end of the concert, I'd play a medley of gospel pieces, as I still do today. And it got to the point where people would say, `Have you recorded those spiritual pieces, those gospel pieces?' And, oh, maybe 20 years--I said, `No, but I'm going to do it next year.' Well, I never did. So finally, last year I said, `Wait, wait, wait, wait, this is going too far. It's time for me to do something about this album,' and here we have "With One Voice."

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Take you back to the current project and ask you about doing a true classic and the CD kicks off with "O Happy Day."

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah. That's one of my favorites. When that record came out, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, I probably wore out--it was on an LP, of course, so I probably wore out two or three of those, and I always wanted to play it, even in person, but I couldn't come up with a way to do it without the voices. And so now we have this version, of course, with my church choir, that is the church I belong to.

(Soundbite of "O Happy Day")

Choir: (Singing) Oh, oh, what a day. What a happy day. Oh...

Mr. LEWIS: Now that we have a version out with choir, when the trio goes out alone, we've finally come up with a way to play it with just the trio, and it works.

(Soundbite of "O Happy Day")

Choir: (Singing) He taught me how to watch, fight and pray, fight and pray. And live rejoicing every day, every day.

GORDON: You can hear how infectious this music is and that the crowd is feeling it. Was that part of wanting to capture that element of gospel?

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah. I think it's difficult to perform gospel music without an audience, because the church members love the choir and the church--and the choir members love the church, and you see what can happen when you put the two together.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SMOKEY NORFUL: (Singing) God can work it out.

Choir: (Singing) God can work it out

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Choir: (Singing) God can work it out.

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

GORDON: And to be honest, I don't remember if it's Smokey's tune or Darius' tune, but much like a true church experience, when the song was about over, they sound--I don't even care if we record this...

Mr. LEWIS: Right.

GORDON: ...we're going to keep it going, and you guys kept it. It's great. It's great.

Mr. LEWIS: That's right. You know, both of them--on both occasions, first Smokey, you know, we did what we thought was the song and the people were still emoting, and those of us in the band, we were still kind of noodling, and Smokey turned around, came back up on the platform, and he said, `I feel something moving in the room.' The spirit was in the building.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) Does anybody here ...(unintelligible) know that God came. If you're not ashamed of the blessed name, hold your head back and say, `Trust him.'

Choir: (Singing) Trust him.

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) Know that he lives.

Choir: (Singing) Know that he lives.

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) Say, `Trust him.'

Choir: (Singing) Trust him.

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) Tell somebody beside you...

Choir: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) ...all you've got to do is trust him.

Choir: (Singing) Trust him. Know that he lives.

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) Trust him and lead not to your own understanding.

Choir: (Singing) Trust him. God will work it out.

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) Yeah.

Choir: (Singing) Trust him

Mr. NORFUL: (Singing) He's about you now. He's...

GORDON: Ramsey, let me ask you something before we let you go, and that's the idea of just the love of music that clearly is in your heart. I mean, you not only perform, but you do radio, a syndicated program, "The Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis." What is it about music that is so heartfelt and infectious to you?

Mr. LEWIS: Maybe it's because I started studying piano at four years old and maybe it's because it became a very deep love of mine by the time I was 11, 12 years old. And maybe it's because it got to the point during my teens where I just loved the feel and the sound of music in general, the piano specifically. Even to this day, just practicing the piano--my wife, when she comes home, she says, `Did you practice today?' and I say, `Yeah.' She goes, `Great,' because she knows when too many days go by that I don't practice, I'm not easy to live with. So there is this love, this love inside me for the sound of the piano, the touch of the piano, and there's a spirit that moves in me, just listening and participating in music in general.

And can I just say there's one song on this album that brings tears to my eyes almost and it's called--a song called "Trees," because my dad used to--I'm now--I'm what--nine, 10, 11, 12 years old, and he was a singer. He was our choir director at our church, and he would also sing, and "Trees" was one of his favorite songs, and I would come home from school, and he called me Sonny. `Sonny, come on over to the piano. Play this for me.' And at least two, three times a week, I'd play the accompaniment to "Trees" and Dad would si--he was a tenor. He would rear back and just sing this song and it's a very meaningful song to me, so I had to include it. Although it's not a gospel piece, I had to include it in the album.

(Soundbite of "Trees")

GORDON: The new CD is "With One Voice." Ramsey Lewis, with a wonderful gospel choir and help by Donald Lawrence, Smokey Norful and Darius Brooks. It's a great, great CD, and as I said, if you want to experience what an African-American church can be in its best sense with gospel music, here's a fun way to do it. Ramsey Lewis, thanks so very much for joining us today.

Mr. LEWIS: Ed Gordon, it's been my pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: They don't have to take this part, but can I sing it one more time?

Group: (In unison) Come on, come on, come on...

Unidentified Singer: Yeah. Oh!

Choir: (Singing) Your heart can be healed if you have all the pieces...

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. If you'd like to comment, log on to npr.org and click on `contact us.' Or give us a call at (202) 408-3330. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: Oh, yeah!

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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  • Album: With One Voice
  • Artist: Ramsey Lewis
  • Label: Narada
  • Released: 2005
 

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