It's understandable that after cutting more than 50 records, Ramsey Lewis might lose track of the exact total.
"I stopped counting at forty-six or forty- seven," he was saying as he prepared for the second set on opening night this week at Blues Alley.
In a business once credited with the stability of a Latin American government, Lewis has been able to ride the tide and remain a leader in the jazz-leaning-to-pop field. He doesn't see himself as competing with what he calls "the Billy Joel-type market."
"You'll never see a jazz-type artist selling records in the two- or three-million record market," he says, "but I do see a resurgence of jazz" after losing ground in the '60s and '70s when rock overwhelmed the airwaves. If he hasn't reached the two- to three-million neighborhood, Lewis has enjoyed million- seller hits. The best known is probably "The 'In' Crowd," a danceable blues-type tune recorded live in Washington in 1965. The song figures prominently in his stage show, as Lewis -- backed by fine bassist Bill Dickens and impressive percussionist Frank Donaldson -- runs through a medley of hits like "Wading in the Water," "Hang On Sloopy" and "Sun Goddess."
Donaldson delivers a remarkable performance in his arrangement of "I Can't Wait," a lengthy piece that calls for a complex drum segment lasting nearly 10 minutes.
But it's Lewis who is truly the show. Performing has become second nature to the Chicago-bred Lewis, who began his keyboard career at four and turned professional at age 15. At Chicago Musical College, he was introduced to classical music, and his interest in the three Bs is evident as bits of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" finds its way to the keys. Some say this may foreshadow things to come, but it's obvious that after 33 years in the business, jazz is what Lewis is serious about. RAMSEY LEWIS -- Friday and Saturday night at 9, 11 and 12:45, and Sunday at 9 and 11 at Blues Alley.