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JAZZ REVIEW : Hits Handicap Ramsey Lewis

September 24, 1987|A. JAMES LISKA

What a burden a hit can be. Take the case of Ramsey Lewis, who opened a six-night stint at Catalina's Bar and Grill in Hollywood on Tuesday night. To those who have not followed his career closely since the 1965 release of "The 'In' Crowd," Lewis is the pianist whose identity is linked with that Top-10 tune and, to a lesser extent, his covers of "Hang On Sloopy," "A Hard Day's Night" and "Wade in the Water," each a solid Top-40 tune before 1966 came to an end.

The 52-year-old Lewis has been touring ever since, which means that he's performed "The 'In' Crowd," a catchy tune with an infectious rhythm, an estimated 11,000 times.

Lewis professes no complaints; his smiling expression changed not one iota during his performance of the song at the end of his opening set Tuesday night. Sadly, it was what the crowd was awaiting: a quick trip back to that quirky time when jazz crossed over to pop without the dubious benefit of electronics and a promotion department.

What makes it all rather sad is that Lewis remains a capable pianist who has more to say than ancient history will allow. He is encumbered by the past--a craftsman trying to construct modern devices with antique tools.

Accompanied by a competent if unspectacular trio of guitarist Henry Johnson, drummer Frank Donaldson and bassist Bill Dickens, Lewis presented a most enjoyable set that had him neatly swinging on "People," benignly Latin on a medley of tunes from "Black Orpheus" and soulful on a gospel medley.

Despite a couple of judgment errors ("People" would have faired better without the multitude of references to other tunes), Lewis rose above "The 'In' Crowd" and "Wade in the Water" with his Debussy-like approach to "No Easy Way" and his funky reading of "Stranger," a tune that best showed his unfailing commitment to melody.

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