Venerable jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis will be 74 in May, but you'd hardly know it from his packed tour schedule and mounting awards. The Chicago native and 2007 NEA Jazz Master honoree hosts a nationally syndicated radio show, has recorded nearly an album a year since 1956 plus tours with his trio, does regular duets with Dave Brubeck, and moonlights as a member of smooth jazz supergroup Urban Knights. But perhaps Lewis' greatest accomplishment was bringing jazz and pop together in soulful harmony.
Sample libraries and hip-hop production would be diminished were it not for Lewis' funky covers ("Dear Prudence," "Soul Man," "People Make the World Go Round," "Slipping into Darkness"). Likewise Lewis, whose been playing since age four, has a sense of history: he studied Bach, Beethoven, Hayden, Duke Ellington, and Art Tatum before forming the Cleffs with Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums, his first of many trio configurations.
As the Ramsey Lewis Trio he scored hits in the mid-1960s on Chess-Cadet label releases like "Wade in the Water," "The In Crowd," and Motown cover "Hang on Sloopy." Lewis did for the piano what Stevie Wonder did for the harmonica, made the instrument swing. He also managed to evolve with the times, switching to Fender electric piano and writing originals like "Uhuru" and "Bold and Black" on 1969's Another Voyage (Cadet) produced by studio great Charles Stepney. Sun Goddess (Columbia, 1974), which showcases enduring Lewis collaborator Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire on drums and vocals, was rediscovered by DJs decades later and ushered in the early-'90s acid jazz movement.
His most recent recording, 2005's With One Voice (Narada) includes gospel standard "Oh Happy Day," redone with a house groove, and soulful reggae number "Keep the Spirit." These days bassist Larry Gray and drummer Leon Joyce fill out the trio, and the group makes an extended stop at Yoshi's SF, a great prelude to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and Barack Obama's inauguration.
In 1967 Columbia Records president Clive J. Davis said: "In the next century or so, we may very well no longer draw distinctions between what is 'jazz,' what is 'classical,' what is 'progressive,' 'rock,' or 'soul.' It may all just be called music, and let it go at that. For it's all here, in the music that Ramsey makes." Davis' hope for an end to genre distinctions may not have come to pass yet, but he was right about Lewis, it is all in him.
RAMSEY LEWIS TRIO
Thurs/15Fri/16, 8 p.m., Sat/17, 8 and 10 p.m., Sun/18, 7 p.m.; $65
1330 Fillmore, SF