On the surface, it’s just a concert, one of many hundreds for three guys-an artist-quality custom Steinway, some drums, a double bass. But this Saturday, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple promises something beyond the surface in their first annual Live@Unity benefit.

The three guys are legendary veterans, a trio led by pianist Ramsey Lewis, who made his name at the Chicago Blue Note 50 years ago and has kept on playing, without letting up on quality or quantity. Lewis became the well-dressed icon of easy jazz with his first release, Gentlemen of Swing, in 1956. His recent Urban Knights series is in its sixth incarnation on Narada, a new CD is in the works for 2008, and old hits such as “Sun Goddess” (1974) have been re-issued on CD. The 72-year-old musician still keeps a performance calendar of more than 40 gigs a year, carrying him from Copenhagen to California in 2007. He hosts his own “Ramsey Lewis Morning Show” on WNUA.

In a special favor for Oak Park, Lewis agreed to present two shows, Dec. 1, to accommodate as many people as possible in the intimate space of Unity Temple. Speaking for the all-volunteer board of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, Rick Smith of Oak Park says, “It’s one of the best examples of Wright’s innovative architectural designs, constructed not only to provide a worship area for the local Unitarian congregation, but also to be a community gathering place.”

No seat in the house is more than 40 feet away from the center stage. While sightlines from many spots are obstructed, ticket prices are adjusted from zone to zone.

But the sound is the thing. Ramsey Lewis soared to fame on his easy-going and soothing piano licks. For him, ingenious playing is almost as natural as a heart beating for the rest of us. Not that Lewis didn’t work at becoming a musician. As a young child, he endured the discipline of mastering Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, but at age 15, a church friend introduced him to the world of jazz. All of that manual dexterity enabled him to open up and play whatever he heard-“the melody within,” as he calls it-on the keyboard.

With a prestigious career and a string of awards, including four honorary doctorates and three Grammies, behind him, Lewis in recent years has worked equally hard at investing in the future. His deeply-held belief in the power of music to transform people has led to the creation of the Chicago-based Ramsey Lewis Foundation, providing live musical experiences to underserved students in the city and at Ravinia. Lewis sees music as a great tool for helping kids reach their potential. “We say children are at risk,” he likes to say, “but I think they are really children at promise.”

His vision for making a better world down the road is shared by the UTRF, which sees preserving Wright’s one-of-a-kind building as another promise for the future. Funds from Saturday’s event will primarily support the “GoGreen Energy Initiative” to install an environmentally-sustainable HVAC system to replace the aging furnace. At a cost of about $1.5 million, the geo-exchange system, relying on ice-storage in 20 wells to be sunk around the perimeter of the building, will reduce heating and cooling costs by at least 40 percent. Smith hopes the technology behind the GoGreen Energy Initiative will become a “poster child” to be adopted by other historic preservation projects. It will also cool off the hot sanctuary in summer, allowing for year-round event scheduling.

Below the surface, the wells will be as unobtrusive as the building itself. Although Frank Lloyd Wright fans come from the world over, a sizable majority of Oak Park residents have never been inside the temple where Wright’s interior and exterior concepts converge into hundreds of rectilinear figures. “It would be great to raise a lot of money this weekend,” says Smith, “but even more than that, we want this event to raise awareness of the architectural monument that is in our own backyard.”

• Ramsey Lewis appears in two special “Live@Unity” benefit performances, Saturday, Dec. 1, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, 875 Lake St. Tickets ($40-80) include building tours, champagne, hors d’oeuvres, and concert. Call 708-445-8955 or visi www.utrf.org/ramsey_lewis_trio.html.

Another investment in the future

Enchanting children with the spell of music is one accomplishment of The Oak Park-River Forest Children’s Chorus, a community organization that provides after-school musical training and performing experiences for singers, age 5 through high school. (Disclosure: I am an employee of said chorus with the attending bias, but I can attest, nonetheless, to the hard work and professional results.) Even if your child or grandchild is not performing, bring the whole family to “THIS JOY: Holiday Songs.” With more than 100 young voices and the beautiful acoustics of Grace Lutheran Church, this event will be so much more alive than watching anything on YouTube.

Artistic Director William Chin, now in his fifth year with the chorus, oversees an eclectic program drawn from Jewish and Christian faiths, in styles from Calypso to American spirituals, Louis Armstrong-influenced jazz, and good old Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

The holiday concert has expanded this year to include “Melody Makers,” the youngest choir led by Associate Conductor Rosetta Sellers-Varela. At the other end of the spectrum, tenor and bass voices add to the group of oldest singers, Pro Musica, also directed by Chin.

• THIS JOY: Holiday Songs, Dec. 2 at 4 p.m., Grace Lutheran Church, 7300 Division Street, River Forest. Tickets ($5-8) available at the door. For more details, visit www.oprfcc.com. Smaller subsets of the Children’s Chorus also perform Dec. 4 and 6 at 6 p.m. (free) for the Cheney Mansion Holiday Open House, 220 N. Euclid and Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. ($10-15) in concert at First United Church, 848 Lake St.

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