'The Song Is You' Tribute to Lawrence G. Williams
Marcus Belgrave & Michele Ramo
"A rare musical duo of guitar and trumpet, Ramo and Belgrave have shown their true ability to give passion a voice." - Lorelei Clarke - JazzReview.com
MARCUS BELGRAVE - Trumpet, Flugelhorn and Vocal MICHELE RAMO - 8 String Guitar "Hei-D MOSTRO"
Detroit is celebrated as a place of origin for some of the finest musicians in jazz. But the Motor City is also a crossroads, a city that has attracted and nurtured fine players from other towns and other lands, and the often sent them out into the world. When one thinks of musicians such as Paul Chambers, Frank Foster, Sheila Jordan, or Yusef Lateef, their Detroit roots come to mind, but none of them were actually born there. Likewise, the three protagonists of the story of this recording come from areas far apart on the globe, from Sicily, Missouri, and Pennsylvania.Trumpet master Marcus Belgrave hails from Chester, PA. He began to attract attention as a member of the small band that accompanied Ray Charles in the sixties, but after five years on the road he decided to settle down in Detroit, attracted by the rich jazz scene and session work at Motown Records. He went on the road again with Lloyd Price, whose backup band was led by Slide Hampton at the time, but by 1967 he was back, and has been living in the Motor City ever since. Belgrave may have settled down, but he has never sat still, traveling widely to perform and record. He soon became one of the central voices on the local music scene, playing with just about everyone, but also organizing and teaching, inspiring and mentoring new generations of jazz musicians, among them Rodney Whitaker, Regina Carter, and James Carter. He continues to instruct to this day, as a visiting professor at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and at other universities as well. Belgrave, who seems equally at home with traditional jazz, bebop, and the avant-garde, has appeared on numerous recordings by Ray Charles, Curtis Amy, Hank Crawford, Charles Mingus (check out Prebird and Changes II), and Horace Tapscott, among others. He has also released some magnificent albums of his own, including a lovely set with pianist Art Hodes, a set of duets with Tommy Flanagan, Gary Schunk, and Geri Allen, as well as a quintet date co-led with Lawrence Williams. Michéle Ramo came to this country from the very south of Italy, the Sicilian seaside town of Mazara Del Vallo, where he first started as a classical violinist, and then took up the guitar as well. For years he was a member of the Italian State Symphony Orchestra in Palermo, but an early infatuation with jazz led him to move to the United States, where he settled in Detroit. In the Motor City he played all kinds of music, including his beloved jazz, and in 1990 he met singer Heidi Hepler, who soon became his wife and also his closest musical partner. Eventually they moved to the East Coast, where they have been constantly expanding their musical horizons, working with a wide range of artists of all generations playing jazz, Brazilian music, and the classics. He seems to have endless energy, developing new instruments, new musical associations and directions, composing, teaching, and writing instructional books. He has released thirteen albums, exploring both of his instruments: most recently on ‘Oh’ Lady be Good’ he stuck to the violin, accompanied by guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, and bassist Jerry Bruno. On ‘Mick and Mundy’ he switched to guitar, playing in tandem with the great guitarist Mundell Lowe. The instrument Michéle plays here is the Hei-D MOSTRO eight string guitar of his own design, constructed by New York luthier Rich DiCarlo. The standard guitar has six strings, although in various times and places there have been other versions. Russian and Portuguese guitars have eight strings, and the great jazz player George Van Eps pioneered the use of a seven-string version, a tradition continued today by Bucky Pizzarelli. Ramo, inspired by his friend Bucky, played a seven-string version for two years, but wanted something more. The new guitar he designed offers the player a 78-note range (from low D to high double D), hence the name, which is also a pun on Heidi), only one octave less than a grand piano; it is a full acoustic model with two built-in electric pickups. But unlike any other guitar, this one has no frets under the lowest two strings, making it similar to the string bass. The instrument is perfectly matched to Ramo’s complex, pianistic guitar style, allowing him to play single lines, chords, and a walking bass line all at the same time, with shifting voicings and different tonal shadings. There must be some bass players out there who rightly feel that this new instrument has deprived them of some gigs; indeed, on this recording it often seems that we are listening to a trio rather than a duo, with a phantom bass fiddle present but unannounced. In classical antiquity the letter was considered as a conversation between absent friends, and the present recording is best described as an epistolary exchange between Ramo, Belgrave, and their late companion Lawrence G. Williams III (1937 – 2006). Williams, who was born in Kansas City, Missouri, moved to Detroit, where he became one of the favorite drummers in town and a beloved member of the jazz community. This is where he met and befriended Marcus and Michéle; for many years he and Marcus co-led combos, and the one lasting memento of this partnership is the outstanding recording Working Together, consisting entirely of Williams compositions. Lawrence was a powerful and inspiring drummer, but he was also a prolific composer, who left more than two hundred tunes. When his health failed and he could no longer play, he took up painting and immediately excelled in that art, as well demonstrated by his painting that is featured on the cover of this album, from Michele’s private collection. In his last days in hospital, his old friends Marcus, Michéle, Heidi and Marcus’s wife Joan kept him company in his room, playing music while Lawrence talked about music. His last wish was that his two dear friends record together. Ramo and Belgrave had long intended to do this, but this request prodded them to bring the project to life, albeit with a completely new perspective. And so here they continue the conversation with their absent friend. The love letters on this CD are a mixture of standards and originals. It all begins with “The Song Is You,” followed by Ramo’s dedication to Williams, “A Song for a True Artist,” and then comes the question “Where are You?” The answers are contained in “East of the Sun,” and in one of Tadd Dameron’s most beautiful creations: “If You Could See Me Now.” Half conversation, half tribute, the recital is never maudlin or even sad; it affirms the life and art of Williams, as expressed in the last four compositions of the recital. After a relaxed “Angel Eyes,” Ramo and Belgrave offer us a rendition of Willams’ best-known composition, “Number 6.” Marcus had already recorded it in partnership with the composer on Working Together, and aspiring jazz musicians may know it from a somewhat unreliable version printed in volume 3 of a commonly used, albeit illegal, fake book. They can now study an authorized account, based on Lawrence’s original manuscript. It all ends in an affirmation of life, as Marcus sits back and sings a relaxed rendition of “What A Wonderful World.” The human race seems to do everything possible to change that, but with people like these and music like this, who could object to such expressions of hope?
Piotr Michalowski is a writer, scholar, and musician residing in Ann Arbor, MI.