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Ramsey Lewis Remains Part of the 'In Crowd'

The enthusiasm of the 76-year-old jazz artist is contagious during his performance at CSUN.

The first time I saw Ramsey Lewis perform, it was in late June 1966. Right after my senior prom, my date and another couple headed for a restaurant on Chicago's near north side where he was performing.

His group was known as the Ramsey Lewis Trio and his big hit was The In Crowd, a number that simultaneously made him a star and exposed a new generation to the marvels of jazz. This was jazz with rhythm, infused a little by Lewis' classical training and a lot with the bouncy drive of pop rock.

The baby boomers who made up the lion's share of the audience Saturday night at CSUN's were rewarded with another rendition of that jazz classic, though they had to wait until Lewis' second encore to hear it. In this case, though, the wait was every bit as enjoyable as the reward.

Lewis is 45 years older than when I first saw him but the joy that was  evident on that balmy night in June was equally evident on this nippy Saturday night in Northridge. Dapper and fit, he continues to relish every note he plays and every sound that comes from the other members of his five-man electric band. At one point, during a drum solo by Charles Heath, Lewis actually rose from the piano bench and joined bass player Joshua Ramos and guitarist Henry Johnson as they stood to the side, looking on approvingly.

There is a timeless quality about Lewis, whether he is playing a mellow John Coltrane medley or dedicating another medley to pop star .

Lewis opened his  80-minute set by accompanying Nnenna Freelon, who had already charmed the audience with her stylized interpretations of such standards as You and the Night and the Music and Smile. Justly praised for her gift for interpreting lyrics, Freelon gave fresh meaning to songs as varied as Carol King's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow and the bluesy You've Changed, a much-covered number often associated with Billie Holiday.

Clad in a burgundy-colored velvet gown, Freelon accented her smooth sound with swaying motions and gentle arm waving reminiscent of a hula dancer. Her voice, silky and almost sultry, would have been at home in an intimate night club but lost none of its appeal in the larger and more formal main theater.

She concluded her set by introducing Lewis and singing Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone to his accompaniment on piano. That led to Lewis' opening number, a longtime favorite, Brazilica. That, in turn, served notice that the time for irresistible toe-tapping jazz by this three-time Grammy winner had arrived.

Through heavy applause and two standing ovations, Lewis felt the love of an audience that was in no rush for his performance to end. And that, as I recall, was just the way it was 45 years ago.

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