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Ramsey Embick: High Standards

by Tom D'Antoni on October 2, 2009


Current conventional thinking goes like this, “I’ve run out of ideas, I think I’ll do an album of standards.”


And then you run across something like Ramsey Embick’s Extended Shelf Life, a solo piano recording which is worth all the rest of the time you might spend wading through all the other albums of standards.


Even though he’s had much success, as the Musical Director for the Pointer Sisters, producer, engineer and player in Los Angeles, he has remained the one great undiscovered jazz pianist in Portland, even though he has played all over town for years.

Don’t get me wrong, all of the musicians know and appreciate him.


This album is flawless, beautiful, thoughtful and like Betty Carter’s work, the fact that he’s playing a standard is irrelevant. He makes you listen with new ears.


Yes, there will be comparisons to Bill Evans. He even does A Remark You Made, but even a cursory listening sets Embick apart.


Perhaps this album will broaden his audience. The other night at the Heathman, when he played with singer Shelly Rudolph the room was packed. 

It was an exquisite combination.

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About the author:

Tom D'Antoni

Tom is Editor-In-Chief of Oregon Music News. He has worked in network and local TV as a producer/reporter including Oregon Art Beat and Inside Edition. He has written for national magazines and many newspapers, most recently Huffingtonpost and The Oregonian. He has network and local radio experience and currently hosts a show every Wednesday from 2-6pm on KMHD .

He's Back--and Badder Than Ever 

Ramsey Embick, a genuine musical heavyweight, finds a home for his music in Oregon. 



243-2122 ext. 355


One Wednesday night at Berbati's Pan, with his jazz combo the Original Cats taking a break between sets, pianist Ramsey Embick sits down for a quick beer and a story. Los Angeles, circa 1990. Embick is a rising studio musician and recording engineer. He's laying down a few tracks with heavy metal demon-gods KISS. Embick programs a basic drum-machine beat for Gene Simmons, he of the tongue of myth and legend, to play guitar to. Finished, Embick asks the metal messiah if the track sounds all right. Simmons laughs. "You're asking the wrong guy," he says.  "It wasn't about the music at all for him," Embick recalls now, barside at Berbati's. "It was all about the money." Not long after that ill-fated session--for which he was never paid--Embick decided to end a long spell in L.A. and return to his native Oregon. "The money was a massive distraction," he says. "I got really sidetracked by that. In Los Angeles, it's really cool playing with the baddest cats, but they're all trying to make a buck." 


Since moving to Portland in 1991, Salem-born Embick has quietly established a reputation as one of the most reliable jazz pianists around. "Ramsey's a monster, a world-class guy," says Craig Mayther, a local musician who has known Embick since high school. "He's been ignored for too long." That should change soon. With a dense cluster of projects, Embick is easing out of obscurity, at least in his adopted home city. His primary gig is with the Original Cats, a group including some of Portland's most senior and acclaimed jazz musicians. The collective résumé of the Cats includes stints with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as ties to the city's music heyday along Williams Avenue in the 1940s and '50s, way before the fortysomething Embick's time. Not content to rest on the laurels of his bandmates, Embick has just released a solo album, leads a trio bearing his name and fronts a Latin combo called ‘Ramsey Y Los Montunos’. If this seems a daunting list of assignments, it's nothing compared to what Embick has done in the past--or to what he wishes he had done, for that matter.  After studying classical and jazz piano at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, Embick's mentor suggested he move on to New York City. But as he now recalls ruefully, Southern California beckoned instead. "Some of the things I should have pursued were not pursued," he says. "This guy was going to get me a record deal; I didn't pursue it. I was in this Latin band that was signed. I didn't pursue that. But there were other gigs that offered more money, and that's where I went. I'm a live player at heart, but I worked as a studio musician for the last five years I was there. It was a big mistake." His regrets notwithstanding, Embick managed to play with some of the most famous musicians in the world throughout much of the 1980s. As music director and keyboard player for the Pointer Sisters, Embick toured the world and contributed to a string of No. 1 songs. "They're fabulous," he says matter-of-factly. "They were very, very supportive of me, and they extracted every ounce of talent I could give them." In addition to the Pointer Sisters, Embick had a stint with Ray Charles and the Commodores, contributed to an ill-fated comeback album by Milli Vanilli and even worked briefly with the Gloved One himself. 


"He's an absolute genius," Embick says of Michael Jackson. "I remember he walked up to me at rehearsal one day and said, 'The bass plart goes like this,' and proceeded to sing the entire bass part. I've never had anybody in my face singing something so flawlessly. He was unbelievable." As far as Jackson's notorious peculiarities go, Embick believes they have as much to do with Jackson's rarified milieu as with the man himself. "With all that money and all those people around him, he's got no one to say no," Embick asserts. "He's got some serious personal failings, and some over-self-consciousness, and when it drives him to do something strange, no one is saying, 'Mike, come on now!'" 


A decade removed from his pop-music past, Embick divides his time between jazz and Latin ventures, and much of his music is a hybrid of the two influences. Whereas jazz is based on improvisation within a canon of old standards, Embick sees in polyrhythmic Latin beats a bottomless well of new musical combinations. "In terms of the standard harmonic improvisation in jazz, it's been done," Embick says. "People are still trying to figure out what Coltrane did--and that happened almost 40 years ago." Much of his own sound, therefore, is based on the application of Latin rhythms to jazz harmonies. "You can't just combine this stuff any old way," he says of Latin influences. "But the deeper you get into it, the more it reveals new ground." 


Embick's latest venture is a CD titled simply Solo Piano, which deftly combines his soft, Keith Jarrett-esque touch with a little Latin punch. What's more, this is an album that never would have been made had Embick stayed in La La Land. "Solo piano performance is looked down upon in Los Angeles as cocktail hack," he says, rolling his eyes. "In Portland, for the most part, whether I'm playing for a museum opening or a gig at the Heathman or whatever, it's treated as art. This is an extremely jazz-friendly town." 


While Portland might not be a place to become rich and famous, that suits Embick just fine. "My bread and butter is my ability to play, not to talk with some lawyer," says Embick. "There isn't any money to be made, so all I need to focus on is the music. I just play the stuff that I like." 


Originally published

Wednesday, June 27, 2001 


photo by martin thiel 

Ramsey Embick


Solo Piano Karmenpolicy Records                Search

Extended Shelf Life, Ramsey Embick. 

Many Northwest jazz fans will know Embick for his Latin outings with Ramsey Y Los Montunos. This is not that project. Here Embick shows off his quiet and tender sides. We get to hear his control of the keyboard on classic tunes that include “I Remember Clifford,” “Stardust” and “Skylark.” There are some originals on here too, and they fit right in. Embick draws out his chords and lets his fluid fingers explore the length of the keyboard. It’s a simple concept and a simple setup, but one that allows us into Embick’s world outside of Latin music. Though I could have used a little more diversity -- the tunes are all rather slow and there isn’t much rhythmic variety -- it’s a lovely album, great for dinner parties or a romantic evening. 
2009, Ramsey Embick, 59:30.

Vine Leaves

by Kurt “ Swingcat” Johnson


The best food in years was this writer’s first thought about the vine leaf appetizer, followed by the main course of Shank of Lamb at the Vine Leaves Restaurant and Bar, located at 2221 S.E. Hawthorne. Open for only six months, Vine Leaves is new to the Hawthorne District restaurant scene. With a Mediterranean setting, the menu focuses on Lebanese cuisine, along with a full wine list offering everything from a Lebanese Blanc to an Australian Shizaz and a California Zinfandel.


Lebanese cuisine differs from other Mediterranean cooking styles primarily due to the mixture of seasonings and style of preparation. The vine leaf appetizer consists of an actual grape vine leaf steamed and rolled around a mixture of rice, parsley, mint, lemon juice and olive oil. The taste is both subtle and sophisticated. Vine Leaves uses only the freshest ingredients producing exotic and mysterious middle-eastern aromas and flavors so that each item is delightful surprise.


This place is classy! Owners Gus Haddad and Gus Bekahi have superbly recreated a Mediterranean setting with a sophisticated and upscale, yet relaxing, ambiance. With the dining room walls done as a fresco, the view is through Romanesque arches overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The lattice-work ceiling intertwined with grape vines adds to the appeal.


At Vine Leaves for four months, waitress Natalie Doyle says this, “Our food is excellent and authentic. Our chef is excellent and it’ s a very relaxed dining atmosphere.”


Regular customer Michele Shutter explains why she comes to Vine Leaves, “It’s smaller and more personal. The owner Gus Haddad is an excellent host and always makes you feel welcome. The food is excellent. I love Mediterranean food and the prices are very reasonable too!”


While customers enjoyed dinner and sipped glasses of fine wine, some of the best live jazz was performed on the dining room’s stage. With smooth and lively versions of such jazz standards as Stan Getz’s Girl From Ipanema and Nat King Cole’s Route 66, jazz vocalist Chrissy Faith and pianist Ramsey Embick had the crowd paying close attention to extraordinary and sophisticated keyboard and vocal improvisations and interpretations.


In Portland for less than two years, Faith has toured with the New Mamas and Papas and been on the road with Holiday On Ice's In Concert. She’s appeared on Broadway in such productions as City of Angels and Platinum. She's toured internationally with Lou Reed, Paul Simon and Robert Plant amongst others. Her recording sessions are too numerous to list but include work on gold and platinum albums with Madonna, Celine Dion and Neil Diamond to name a few. Along with these was a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Rock Vocalist for her effort as the singing voice of Demi Moore in the Columbia Pictures film No Small Affair. She's also appeared on television shows such as Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show (Johnny Carson and Jay Leno),Late Night with Conan O'Brien and others. Later this year, she will be recording a new CD including some of her own original compositions.


She met Embick at Produce Row during one of Ron Steen’s jam sessions. Since then, they’ve teamed to create a sophisticated jazz show. Faith describes her focus in jazz; “Jazz is my ‘final frontier’. I’m trying to create fusion between R&B and hard core jazz. That’s what I do and that’s what I want to do.”


The absolute high point of the show was a special request rendition of George Gershwin’s Summertime, made famous by Billie Holiday. All at once, soulful, smooth yet emotional, Faith poured her being into it’s bluesy rhythms while Embick played an incredible long piano solo. The effect was magic.


With 27 years as a jazz pianist, Embick performs a full assortment of jazz classics and original compositions. He’s toured with the Pointer Sisters for four years and performed with Tiny Tim when he was in Portland. He’s just finished recording a new unnamed solo CD featuring both original compositions and jazz classics. He also leads the Ramsey Embick Trio. He mentions Oscar Petersen, Art Tatum and Errol Garner as influences.


Embick describes his main goal as a jazz pianist; “If you’re a jazz player, you just can’t play one thing. To bring the tune alive, I have to live inside the music. At that point, the truth of the song will reveal itself.” He also points out the work involved to be a successful musician; “I practice all day long and if I don’t do that then I can’t believe in the music I’m doing nor expect others to believe as well. What I’ve done as a piano player is take the music inside me. When I’m in love with it, I can get other people to love it too.” You can see more of Embick at his website


Haddad and Bekali have created a standout nightspot, blending sophisticated food, ambiance and jazz. This is no accident. With over 20 years’ experience as a restaurateur, Haddad grew up in a family-owned restaurant in Lebanon. He’s also been involved in the Jazz D’Opus nightclub.


Haddad hails from northern Lebanon, while Bekali comes from the Bekaa Valley. Haddad explains Vine Leaves’ direction; “Eventually we’d like to expand to the west side and national level.” He further explains the restaurant’s customer focus; “We believe in a quality product and that customer service go side-by-side.” Bekali adds, “I once read a book called Give them a Pickle. The main lesson of the book was don’t be cheap with the customer. We always go the extra mile for the customer. We’re here for the future.”


With an upscale and sophisticated ambiance, exceptional food at reasonable prices and top-caliber jazz acts, Vine Leaves Restaurant and Bar has a bright future indeed! Stop in and catch the show and fine dining. You won’t be disappointed! You can see more of Vine Leaves at their new website (Also, see Music on Tap for schedule.)







Positively Entertainment

Oregonian, A&E, July 6, 2007 

Tim DuRoche 


The Montunos Maestro: Ramsey Embick 


"Ramsey Embick is Portland’s “El Jefe” of Latin-jazz piano. A 30-year veteran of jazz and Latin music’s ebb and flow of popularity, he’s worked the salt mines of the L.A. studios, as music director for the Pointer Sisters, and hired gun for Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight, Ray Charles, Kiss and Kurtis Blow. Embick maintained his calm by focusing on his Latin piano chops, eventually returning to Portland in 1992. Attracting players from North, Central and South America for his stellar combo, Ramsey Y Los Montunos, his own appearances with the group are becoming rare. But make no mistake: They are red-letter days for incendiary music and dance. A deeply sensitive player and a first call for jazz vocalists, Embick has been instrumental in buoying the growth of Northwestern Latin music for years through his own groups; as a member of Cambalache, Latin Expression, La Mayor, Nueva Era, Barrio Latino, Pa’Lante and Conjunto Alegre, as well as in support of such salsa greats as Luis Conte, Poncho Sanchez, Clare Fisher, Tito Puente, Arturo Sandoval and the legendary Jesus Alfonso of Los Munequitos de Matanzas. The Salem-born “Ramzini” as he’s known, can conjure up a big city rumba riot, a la Eddie Palmieri, unlike any bandleader around." 


by Robin Rosemond



As for the entertainment this year, my favorite was Ramsey Embick. He played keyboards for two bands (Los Montunos and Rhythm Culture) on the same night, so he hung around for a good part of the day. I’ve seen Ramsey around for years, but until that fabulous Sunday at the Waterfront Park, I had no idea just what a major talent he is (He gave me a solo CD that he signed for me and that I love listening to). It’s just that magical timing thing where worlds collide, music is played and life is worth living. I’m not sure what it really means except that I love the music of Portland. It doesn’t matter if it’s a country band, a dance troupe, a juggler, or a high school jazz band; I enjoy getting them on and off the stage. I know that things will change for Rose Festival and of course I would like to be included in those changes, but I’ve decided to support it no matter what. The years I’ve spent doing this community event have been good. I’ve learned a lot about working with all kinds of performers and how important it is to get the entertainment to the people.



© 2001-2002 Two Louies Magazine

RE: Ramsey Y Los Montunos” at Portland Classical Chinese Garden, August 12, 2008


“Ramsey Y Los Montunos” will be performing at the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, 127 NW 3rd Ave. on Tuesday, August 12, at 7:00 PM. This very special Salsa group at first glance might appear to be just another one of the Pacific NW’s extraordinary local bands. In reality, its members hail from all over the western hemisphere. Ramsey himself, a native Oregonian, has shared his music with more than 2 dozen countries and has lived and performed on both coasts. “Y Los Montunos” (which roughly translates as “and the Hot Licks”) are from Cuba, Venezuela. Peru, Mexico, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Their music, being international in nature, is among the most exciting and appealing dance music anywhere and get this, 4 drummers - 5 if you include the piano - details all worked out, rhythm breaks and all.  Count on their excellent musicianship and be prepared for an unforgettable performance.

Embick's “Silent Way” Hears Thunderous Applause

by Jonathan Eder

“Jazz in Portland, Oregon is blossoming - even exploding!” That's what's representatives from the Portland Jazz Festival were trumpeting on September 29th, 2011 at at PDX Jazz series concert held in McMenamins' Mission Theater.

The evening's program, “In a Silent Way”, was headlined by local pianist Ramsey Embick and his magnificent ensemble. The audience was transfixed throughout a Herculean musical retrospective to the acclaimed pianist & composer, Joe Zawinul. Embick's band also incorporated songs by Zawinal's compatriots that exemplified his mighty career including those of alto saxophonist Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderlery, and noted sax virtuoso Wayne Shorter from the band, Weather Report. Mr. Embick appeared with Devin Phillips on tenor & soprano sax, Damian Erskine on bass, Mark Griffith (Jaco Pastorius Tribute Band) on drums, and Rafael Trujillo on percussion.

The concert began with Embick's inventive solo rendition of the Zawinul classic, “Midnight Mood”. The melody was eerily reminiscent of, “Soldaten auf der Wacht", AKA, “Lili Marlène” which was made famous by the singer and actress Marlene Dietrich. The quintet followed up by playing the Cannonball Adderley tune, “Scotch & Water”. Embick's powerful group dazzled the audience with an array of the Zawinul tunes including “Country Preacher”, “In a Silent Way” (a tune from Zawinul's work with Miles Davis), “Boogie-Woogie Waltz”, and “Cannonball”. Interlaced throughout the program were two Wayne Shorter songs: “Harlequin” and, “Palladium”, and “Jive Samba” which was written by Nat Adderley, and recorded by his brother, Cannonball. The concert concluded with three more miraculous Zawinul arrangements:“Birdland”, “A Remark you Made”, and “Mercy, Mercy” for the encore. 


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