UA Centennial Hall

It was a good night for jazz in Tucson when the Ramsey Lewis Trio played UA Centennial Hall last Friday.

Fit and trim, pianist and composer Lewis looked a good 15 years younger than his actual age of 74. And he played with the timeless fire of a musician who has paid his dues, been up and been down, and played the world over, yet he still brings freshness to his art. It didn't hurt that he was accompanied by a formidable rhythm section: Larry Gray on bass and Leon Joyce on drums.

Ample space was left for Gray and Joyce to improvise solos. Joyce was especially good, his playing combining the energy of Elvin Jones and the subtlety of Paul Motian.

Lewis demonstrated his two greatest strengths: the manipulation of the melodies within his tunes, and a boisterous left hand, maintaining impeccable rhythms. Although his playing style is the result of concentrated practice—which he still does regularly—he seemed to invent new ways to phrase a melody as the songs unfolded, such as on the opening tune, his now-famous interpretation of the gospel classic "Wade in the Water."

He can carefully shape a delicate passage, as he did on a new and as-yet-unnamed original tune (that owed more than a little to Duke Ellington's "The Single Petal of a Rose"), or pound out a driving, funk-charged groove, à la the encore of his most popular hit, "The 'In' Crowd." On that tune, Lewis showed off his diverse tastes, borrowing a little from the melody of "On Broadway" and breaking the song down into Latin chunks—a little Caribbean salsa here, a little Brazilian samba there.

Patti Austin, known by many as an R&B and pop singer, showed off her jazz background with an opening set that was a tribute to the songs of Ella Fitzgerald. Backed by a pianist, bassist and drummer, she engaged in Ella-style vocal acrobatics while exhibiting a smooth and melodic flair, capably tackling such classics as "Honeysuckle Rose," "Miss Otis Regrets," "Satin Doll," "The Man I Love," "How High the Moon" and "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." With a stage presence that was part classy and part garrulous, Austin helped make it an evening to remember.

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