Music Review: Upendo Ni Pamoja

After years of recording for Chess Records and its Argo and Cadet subsidiaries, Upendo Ni Pamoja was Ramsey Lewis Trio’s debut for Columbia Records. They prepared a well-rounded selection of songs that lavished in lushness, scaled gospel heights, and barreled through rhythm & blues (with frequent visits to all these styles, moods, and moments within the expanse of a single song). These ranges of emotions seemingly emanated from Ramsey’s playful sense of adventure, inherent jazz soul, and broad-minded approach toward music and life.

As a mainstay for decades, I have to admit that I took Lewis for granted until he was no longer here (as of September 12, 2022). Revisiting old favorites and seeking out the previously unfamiliar have given me a proper appreciation of his vast body of work. While already well known by crate diggers and heavily sampled since the ‘90s, recent glowing recommendations of Upendo Ni Pamoja spurred me in its direction. A reviewer on Amazon aptly referred to the album as dashiki jazz, while another listener on YouTube fittingly described the album as “funky soulful spiritualism.” Both encapsulate this transitional album of crossover soul jazz co-produced by Ramsey Lewis and Teo Macero with sound captured and converged by Fred Plaut, who was one of Columbia Records' finest engineers. The title of this album - which, rendered in Swahili, translates to “Love is Together” - was perhaps lifted from Afro Sheen’s advertising that appeared in 1971 editions of Ebony.

Their opening statement is a free-flowing cover of War’s “Slipping into Darkness” with jabs of upright bass provided by Cleveland Eaton and the spot-on drumming of Morris Jennings - giving Lewis the sound and space to take off with the simmering melody. The album quickly hits a peak point with an evocative cover of "People Make the World Go Round," which was the big 1971 hit for the Stylistics. Further, the Trio’s rendition sounds like it may have influenced Milt Jackson’s version, which later emerged on Jackson's commendable Sunflower album from 1973.

The adventurous title track, "Upendo Ni Pamoja,” also released as an edited 45, has it all as it features the prominent bright melodies of Ramsey’s mid-sixties pop & soul jazz period along with the still-futuristic sounding sonic textures that would soon be abundant on his subsequent album Sun Goddess. The closing number “Collage” still hovers “out there” and is another foreshadowing of the elastic shape of sounds to come with Ramsey’s use of Fender Rhodes Electric Piano and his embracement of the newest technology (ARP Ensemble & ARP Synthesizer) that would be fully employed and topped off by ethereal vocals on Sun Goddess

Lewis was courageous and countervailing on one level for casting a wide net and taking on the pop and soul hits of the time despite being maligned by the cognoscenti. His efforts were rewarded as his appealing and exuberant jazz pop records scaled the ultra-competitive Top 40 charts of the mid-sixties. Lewis should also be recognized for his overall versatility, which was made possible by his equanimity, expansive vision, and all-encompassing approach toward music.

Upendo Ni Pamoja on Freegal

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