Unsung Archives: Ramsey Lewis – Funky Serenity (Columbia, 1973)
If his 1965 hit “The In Crowd” is your only exposure to Chicago jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, Funky Serenity, released just eight years later, will largely sound like the work of another artist. To be fair, a lot had changed in the jazz world in that short amount of time. Miles had gone electric, and jazz fusion had become a viable exploratory offshoot for musicians looking to expand their musical scope. Lewis and his band capture the spirit of the era beautifully with a nine-song set that delves into the more wide-open aspects of jazz at the time without altogether subverting their signature sound.
Make no mistake – there are still glimpses of his group’s crowd-pleasing, blues-tinged small ensemble playing (“What it Is!” and album closer, a cover of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s hit “Where Is the Love”) but the most satisfying moments on the album come when Lewis and his bandmates test new territory and veer outward.
“Dreams,” a nearly 10-minute excursion that seems to even break free from tempo until the band expertly returns with a tight, rhythmically rich groove on cue, is a clear standout. In those untethered moments, Lewis seems to be reaching for what Herbie Hancock was doing with his Mwandishi band circa Sextant and Crossings, eschewing strong melody for thoughtful texture. The track was certainly a key moment for hip hop’s Golden Age: portions of the track were sampled in hits from A Tribe Called Quest (“Electric Relaxation”) and the Fugees (“How Many Mics”) and chopped by other notables like Goodie Mob (“Sesame Street”) and Lord Finesse (“Gameplan”).
Lewis and his ensemble cleanse the musical palette afterward, closing out the album with a cover of the Stylistics’ hit “Betcha By Golly, Wow” and the aforementioned “Where is the Love.” The former walks a fine line, respectful of its source material without appearing too schmaltzy. On an album that’s really been ensemble driven, Lewis’ keys seize center stage. His performance proves how thoughtfully he can drive a musical narrative when emulating a vocal line. He adds his flourishes but remains tasteful.
There’s plenty of Ramsey available via Spotify to get caught up on his vast catalog. Funky Serenity is unfortunately not among those titles, but you can find a stream on YouTube if you’re curious. The album’s a great introduction to the boundless curiosity present in jazz from the 1970s, and a subtle introduction into its freer, more avant-garde moments without throwing the listener into the deep end.
Words by: Brandon Roos