“Unforgettable” Ramsey Lewis and John Pizzarelli LIVE! at The Grunin Center

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

The bassist and drummer have already started to play as jazz masters Ramsey Lewis and John Pizzarelli make their way out onto the Jay and Linda Grunin Center stage in Toms River, NJ on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. The famous pair takes a bow together before taking their respective places — Lewis at the piano, and Pizzarelli, guitar in hand, behind the mike — here this evening to present a tribute to a musician they’ve both long admired: Nat King Cole.

Ramsey Lewis, 81, is a celebrated jazz icon with 80 albums, seven gold records, and three Grammy Awards to his credit. Even more unusual, however, is the fact that as a jazz musician, he’s had several Top 20 hits on the pop charts including 1966’s “Wade in the Water” at #19, “Hang on Sloopy,” which reached #11 in 1966, and his highest charting tune, “The In Crowd,” which climbed to #5 in 1965.

John Pizzarelli, 56, has recorded over 20 of his own albums and performed on over 40 albums by other artists including Rosemary Clooney, James Taylor, and the Boston Pops. Beloved in the Garden State, he is famous for performing the local favorite, “I Love Jersey Best.” Although his most recent project is Midnight McCartney — his take on many of the post-Beatle compositions of Sir Paul McCartney — he’s also known for his 1994 tribute to Nat King Cole entitled Dear Mr. Cole.

Pizzarelli’s dad — jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli— had the distinction of recording in the studio with Nat King Cole, a singer introduced on TV’s The Jack Benny Show as “the best friend a song ever had.” Cole first came to prominence as a piano player. Revealing, “I started out to become a jazz pianist; in the meantime, I started singing and I sang the way I felt and that’s just the way it came out,” Cole became reknowned for his smooth baritone voice. He performed in jazz and big band settings, and ultimately became a major force in popular music for decades. He hosted a national television show, The Nat King Cole Show, and achieved great success on the music charts with hits like “Unforgettable,” “The Christmas Song,” “Mona Lisa,” “When I Fall in Love,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” and many more.

Now seated behind the Grunin Center’s Steinway grand, Lewis tinkles the ivories and from behind his mike, Pizzarelli strums his guitar to Cole’s 1946 hit, “Route 66.” The bass joyfully walks below as Lewis’ piano dances to the drummer’s time and Pizzarelli adds his smooth-sounding vocal above. The entire group takes turns soloing and supporting one another as the song drives forward, taking the entire audience on a delightfully jazzy joy ride.

After appreciative applause from this house filled with music lovers of all ages, Lewis steps up to anounce the next tune, Cole’s 1954 Top Ten hit, “Smile,” written by Charlie Chaplin. Lewis’ piano intro intertwines the famous “Smile though your heart is breaking” melody with scales which criss-cross above, below, in front of, and behind the melody, taking the tune on a magical trip filled with surprises, yet always returning to the glorious melody. Lewis’ piano playing ability is so extraordinary, one can practially “hear” the lyrics shining through, even though no one is singing.

Moving on to one of Cole’s earliest recordings, “Hit That Jive, Jack,” from the early ‘40s, the musicians start off by playing their instruments side-by-side, but suddenly, like a Bach fugue, they take turns running ahead and returning to the fold as each musical voice creates its own unique part of the whole. Then Pizzarelli starts scat singing, ultimately taking on Cole’s vocal, “Hit that jive, Jack, put it in your pocket,” the audience clearly enjoying the outstanding musicianship of Pizzarelli both in terms of his voice and his stellar guitar playing.

Following a silky smooth version of “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” Lewis tells the entranced audience about the “wonderful lyric” of Cole’s 1948 #1 hit, “Nature Boy,” specifically pointing out to them the song’s last line: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” At that point, the quartet’s rendition of the tune opens with an extended solo by stand-up bass player Joshua Ramos, who bends notes as his fingers walk the fingerboard. Then the rest of the group joins in, with Pizzarelli on guitar and vocals, well-supported by the superb rhythm section playing of Lewis on piano and Charles Heath on drums.

One of the highlights of the evening is the quartet’s upbeat tune, “Welcome to the In Club,” a clever arrangement of the Nat King Cole/Count Basie number, “Welcome to the Club,” that interpolates solos and chord progressions from Lewis’ 1960’s pop hit “The In Crowd.” On this tune, the audience has an opportunity to experience the quartet as they alternately pay tribute to one world-reknown artist, yet swing back over to pay tribute to another world-reknown artist sitting right behind the piano.

According to legend, Nat King Cole’s singing career did not start until a drunken barroom patron demanded that he sing the song, “Sweet Lorraine.” Cole, himself, once revealed that the myth “sounded good, so I just let it ride.” That said, the story of the insistent customer does contain some element of truth. According to Cole’s biography — written by his wife, Maria — there once was a customer who requested a specific song one night, but it was a song Cole did not know. Instead, he sang “Sweet Lorraine,” and Cole — along with his entire group—was rewarded with a 15¢ tip.

Following the quartet’s performance of “Sweet Lorraine,” Lewis tells the audience about the time he once met Nat King Cole in person at a Chicago record release party. According to Lewis, upon meeting his idol, he became inextricably “tongue tied,” but Nat, ever the gentleman, made the occasion even more noteworthy by telling the young musician, “I hear you are very good and we are looking for good things from you.”

As if to prove Cole’s prophecy, Lewis plays a lovely version of Cole’s 1949 hit, “A Portrait of Jenny,” with solid support from the rest of the group, particularly Joshua Ramos on acoustic bass.

Another highlight of the evening is the group’s rendition of Cole’s original composition, “Straighten Up and Fly Right” a Top Ten hit for Cole in 1943. This song features the talents of Charles Heath, who plays a precision jazz drum solo, bouncing along rhythmically, making it look easy, despite the fact that what he is doing is simply extraordinary.

After great applause, the quartet launches into a song which was a hit by Nat King Cole in the 1950s and again in the 1990s when Cole’s original 1951 recording of the song was edited and remixed to create a duet with his daughter, Natalie. In 1992, this second version of the song won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance. Moreover, in 2000, Cole’s original recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. With Joshua Ramos starting off the tune on his bass with a samba beat, Pizzarelli picks up the lead vocal and charms the crowd with the quartet’s rendition of this very elegant song, “Unforgettable.”

Telling a story about the time he performed live on BET television with jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine — having no rehearsal, at Lewis’ request — Pizzarelli not only makes the crowd chuckle, but makes Ramsey Lewis laugh along as well.

Ending the show with snappy version of “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” the quartet comes back for an encore of Cole’s 1952 Top Ten hit, “Walking My Baby Back Home,” the audience leaping to its feet in appreciation for the masterful performance by this talented group of musicians.

After the show, people stop to talk about their experiences seeing the two top-flight jazzmen presenting a joint tribute to one of their musical heroes.

Bob, from Manasquan, for instance, smiles and exclaims, “I was marinating in nostalgia and musicality!”

And Ricky, from Toms River, goes on to articulate, “It’s great that the music of legends like Nat King Cole never die. And it’s even greater that we have legends such as John Pizzarelli and Ramsey Lewis to keep their music sounding so vibrant and fresh.”

And what word would we use to describe what we, personally, experienced?

Simple.

“Unforgettable.”

For more on Nat King Cole, please go to natkingcole.com. For further information on Ramsey Lewis, see ramseylewis.com. For more info on John Pizzarelli, check out johnpizzarelli.com. Lastly, for more on upcoming performances at Toms River’s Grunin Center for the Arts — including folk legend Arlo Guthrie on Nov. 10, TV’s Tom Wopat and Linda Purl on Nov. 16, and country accapella group Home Free on Nov. 20 and 21 — please go to grunincenter.org.

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