Urban Knights,
(Narada, 2003)

Five albums on, what began as a smooth jazz supergroup including Ramsey Lewis, Grover Washington Jr. and Omar Hakim has evolved into an ensemble anchored by the father-and-son team of Ramsey and Frayne Lewis, who have made it their mission to work with and give exposure to the best new young players they can find.

Frayne played some keyboards and handled production on the record, while Ramsey played piano and served as executive producer. Kevin Randolph on keyboards and Calvin Rodgers on drums represent the core of the band, playing on the majority of tracks, while about a dozen other players are shuffled in and out as needed. Each track has a featured player; Ramsey's signature piano sound is featured on three tracks. Steve Zoloto's sax is featured on two, as is Kenny Garrett's sax. Other featured players include Michelle Williams and Paul Walton on vocals, Henry Johnson on guitar and Orbert Davis on trumpet.

All this talent firepower is put to good use on Urban Knights V. You'd never know it by his press photos, but the senior Lewis celebrated his 69th birthday in 2004 and is now in his sixth decade as a professional musician. In the mid-'60s his piano style became well known worldwide as a result of his hit instrumental versions of pop songs such as "Hang On Sloopy" and "The In Crowd." The trademark piano sound is still in fine form on "Got to Give It Up," which kicks off this disc with an unstoppable rhythm section and hot background vocals that make this Marvin Gaye composition sound like a Ramsey Lewis party hit for the new millennium.

"Quiet Heart" is an original composition with a beautiful melody played on sax by featured player Kenny Garrett, who also gives his sax a nice workout with "On the Up," in which the fun that the players are obviously having comes through the sax/synth/horn mix, loud and clear. "Church" is another original featuring Ramsey's relaxed piano layered over an insistent bass with some high energy Earth Wind & Fire-style horns on top. Michelle Williams' vocal on "Will You Still Love Me" sounds like it's ready for the pop charts. Steve Zoloto does a nice sax rendition of the classic Johnny Nash reggae tune "I Can See Clearly Now," but I can't escape the thought that this tune has been used once too often in commercials.

"No One" is nicely sung by Paul Walton and sounds great, but lyrics are apparently not the strong suit of guitarist Brando Triantafillou who wrote the song. "It's easier to love you than to love no one at all" is an odd thing to sing to someone; would the recipient of this sentiment find it endearing? I think not. Orbert Davis provides some staccato-style funky trumpet on "The New Funktier" complete with pounding bass and party claps with the horn work sounding like Miles Davis meets James Brown. The Knights hit a nice sax groove on "Dream," another original. The album concludes with a medley of "Honor Him" and "Now We Are Free," two Hanz Zimmer compositions from the soundtrack to Gladiator.

With pumping bass and drums on nearly every track, V is something of a party record that offers well-written songs and first-rate jazz players working a hugely listenable mix of jazz, pop, R&B, funk and rock while retaining jazz credibility. This is smooth jazz of the highest order.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 10 July 2004

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