Ramsey Lewis
& Nancy Wilson,

Meant to Be
(Narada, 2002)

Simple Pleasures
(Narada, 2003)

These two discs offer masterful piano jazz and jazz/pop vocal music performed by old friends who so enjoy playing and singing this music that the joy literally pours forth from the speakers. As told in the CD booklet, while serving as the artistic director of jazz at Chicago's Ravinia Festival in 2001, Ramsey Lewis was chatting backstage with longtime friend Nancy Wilson, who was performing at the festival. "After a few moments, Lewis paused and said to her, 'We should do something together.' Miss Wilson replied, 'You're right -- it's been too long.' Meant to Be is the result."

Simple Pleasures followed one year later. Both projects share the same format, with about half the tracks on each featuring vocals by Wilson with the remaining instrumentals focusing on Lewis's piano jazz, with occasional Ramsey Lewis Trio-style arrangements.

Meant to Be consists of five jazz and pop standards such as Van Morrison's "Moondance" and a version of "Peel Me a Grape" that might make you forget the well-known Diana Krall interpretation. There's also a really nice rendition of "Piano in the Dark" that sounds like Wilson is singing to Lewis with the line, "when he plays piano in the dark." The rest of the tunes are originals penned by Lewis or his bandmates.

The title track is a gorgeous instrumental, reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi. Lewis and Wilson's love of the music is evident throughout, especially in their rendition of Patti Austin's "First Time Love." Van fans might take issue with the lounge version of "Moondance," in which Wilson takes numerous liberties with the melody; I don't get the bass solo played so high on the neck of the instrument that it makes the player sound like a wannabe guitarist.

Simple Pleasures has two Lewis originals paired with eight covers, including a really great version of War's "Slipping into Darkness." "In the Name of Love" kicks off the album with some hot Chicago-style horns anchoring a nice arrangement of this classic tune with a great vocal by Wilson. "All This Love" cooks on all burners with more Chicago horns. John Lennon's "In My Life" gets the Ramsey Lewis Trio treatment, and Lewis also takes off on a jazzy piano solo, returning just in time for the finish of the song.

On "Give Me Something Real," Llew Matthews complements Wilson's vocal work with another nice horn chart. "Lost Up in Loving You" has an atmospheric clinking glass, smoky bar, piano jazz vibe. "Ooh Child" comes across well enough as an instrumental but I'd just as soon hear Wilson sing it. Her take on "God Bless the Child," however, is a bit improvisational for my taste; she dances all around the melody without ever doing any of it straight.

Both Meant to Be and Simple Pleasures were produced by Lewis with superb sound, and both provide an excellent showcase for these performers to do what they do best, and they do make it sound easy. If you only get one of these discs, start with Simple Pleasures due to its greater emphasis on the more familiar material; however, if you really enjoy this music, you can't go wrong picking up both of these fine CDs.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 6 November 2004

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Buy Meant to Be from Amazon.com.

Buy Simple Pleasures from Amazon.com.