When legendary pianist Billy Taylor told Ramsey Lewis to perform shows as a solo pianist rather than only in jazz trios, Lewis did. When Taylor told Lewis to write some more music, Lewis did.
“And here I sit,” Lewis told a sold-out audience at the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center Friday night in a tribute to Taylor, who passed away late last year.
Lewis played several Taylor numbers through the show. He opened with an original “Perchance,” a melodic tune that morphed into classical jazz during the heart of the improvisation, something Lewis often does.
He followed with a slow, somewhat sad treatment of the Beatles’ “Here There and Everywhere.” Lewis moves from gentle to less gentle. He rarely gets aggressive, more cerebral than physical. Even at uptempo speeds, he traverses the keys with such control that you hardly see his hands lift from the board.
Lewis alone on stage is not a swinging, tap-your-foot experience. It’s close to the exact opposite — the beat doesn’t hold steady, and you need a sense of stillness to follow what he’s doing.
“You make it up as you go along,” he said early in the show. “Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean you can’t change it. That’s jazz.”
Lewis played a beautifully sparse version of “Dear Lord,” John Coltrane’s experimental quest for new musical freedoms. And Lewis led us down some of his own innovative paths.
The night started with a conversation between Lewis and Laura Hartmann, a 1985 Saint Rose graduate who has worked in music management, including working with Taylor and Lewis for many years.
“Everything we did, he did first,” Lewis said, drawing laughter. Lewis referred to their TV shows, radio shows, and music careers, for which he sought Taylor’s advice. “He basically told me to trust myself.”
Hartmann talked about Taylor’s largest song, one of the Civil Rights anthems “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” which played through the speakers with Nina Simone on vocals when we entered the hall.
An audience member asked about Taylor’s interest in teaching. Taylor, who earned his master’s and doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, felt that jazz had to carry on through the generations, and considered it important to educate the youth, Ramsey explained. “He called jazz America’s classical music. So why haven’t we championed this music we call jazz? It’s a deeper question than we think.”
“I remember Billy called me just to see how I was,” Hartmann recalled, surprised at the time.
“Rarely does an artist call their agent unless they want something,” Ramsey interjected. “When you got through talking to Billy, you felt better about life.”
Ramsey seemed to feel that way when he finished playing Billy Taylor’s friendly “Mood for Mendes,” then moving into a bouncey medley of Taylor’s tunes and his that brought the crowd to their feet for the first time.
“I was very fortunate to have watched Billy and Ramsey grow together and develop the relationship that they did,” Hartmann told the crowd.
With alumna Hartmann playing a key role, and one legend — Lewis — paying tribute to another — Taylor — this was a proud night for the Saint Rose community.