Ramsey Lewis's 'Proclamation of Hope' is the most self-satisfying project of his career

IN TUNE: "It touched that string in me," Lewis says of his work on the president who freed the slaves. (Michael Coakes)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010

Ramsey Lewis has released 80 albums, had five albums that went gold and won three Grammy Awards. But nothing quite prepared the 75-year-old jazz pianist for his most ambitious project: a request to write a piece of music honoring the life of Abraham Lincoln.

The commission came from the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago and was scheduled to premiere last year, during the 200th anniversary celebration of Lincoln's birth. Presented with this momentous task, Lewis spent months learning about Lincoln, reading biographies and visiting museums.

"I absorbed a lot of Lincoln's life, a lot of what made him laugh and think," he said recently from his home in Chicago.

After debuting "Proclamation of Hope" in Chicago last year, Lewis will be at the Kennedy Center on Nov. 14 for the East Coast premiere of his two-hour, eight-movement symphonic poem. The concert will be taped for broadcast on PBS.

Rather than re-create the music of earlier times, Lewis composed musical themes inspired by episodes from Lincoln's life. In his research, he came across an account of how Lincoln witnessed a slave auction and was deeply affected when a family was forced apart.

"Being African American and having ancestors who were slaves conjured up feelings in me," Lewis said. "It touched that string in me, of American folk music, blues and gospel. The music just came. It was almost as if I was writing a soundtrack."

Music has been a lifetime calling for Lewis, who has been playing piano since he was 4. As early as the 1950s, when he began to lead a jazz trio in Chicago, he was writing songs. He made hit records in the 1960s and '70s, scaling the pop charts as a leading exponent of what was called soul jazz.

More recently, Lewis has been stretching himself as a composer and performer. He wrote a full-length piece for the Joffrey Ballet in 2007 and penned a tune for the Turtle Island Quartet. Last year, he released a trio album consisting entirely of his own music.

Lewis's musical collaborator on "Proclamation of Hope" is Chicago musician and composer Scott Hall, who orchestrated the composition and is its conductor.

"I felt like I was on top of the world, conducting that piece," Hall said of last year's premiere of "Proclamation." "This has been the highlight of my career as an arranger."

Hall, director of jazz studies at Columbia College Chicago, selected the nearly two dozen musicians who perform alongside Lewis and his trio. Except for a few soloists from Chicago, most of the musicians at the Kennedy Center will be from Washington.

Lewis and Hall worked together in a distinctly 21st-century manner, e-mailing computer files back and forth. The resulting work sounds unlike anything Lewis's earlier soul-jazz fans could expect.

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