Tuesday, August 7, 2018

James Austin Jr.'s Songs in the Key of Wonder

I was all set to begin this review with a discussion of the novelty of jazz covers of Stevie Wonder songs. But after a cursory Google search, I discovered that many, many performers have come up with jazz arrangements for Mr. Wonder, everything from organ trios to big bands and everything in between. It shouldn't be a surprise that Wonder's songs lend themselves so easily to straightforward jazz genres, considering the original renditions were filled with jazz, funk, fusion, R&B and rock influences. It also helps that most of Stevie Wonder's biggest hits were marked by their one-of-a-kind melodies, the kind of melodies that are instantly recognizable no matter the context of the genre. Record a grindcore version of "My Cherie Amour" or "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and chances are most people will figure it out by the first chorus.

James Austin Jr., a jazz keyboard player from Chicago, hasn't come up with any wild angles on Wonder's biggest hits. He simply approaches them with the same sense of reverence as anything from the Great American Songbook, which is where they probably belong in the first place. His ensemble is smallish yet heavy with Latin jazz accents, so the playing is tight and controlled but varied enough to keep things interesting. He's the type of bandleader who has probably figured this out many years ago--Wonder's melodies are so strong, we merely have to trust our own instincts and play our way. Songs such as "Isn't She Lovely," "Part-Time Lover" and "Golden Lady" already have great bones, to butcher a real estate term, and the roadmap is quite simple when it comes to improvisation.

That's not to say music like this is easy. Each one of Austin's cohorts--sax player Jarrard Harris, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, bassist Ben Rubens, drummer Kobie Watkins, percussionist Samuel Torres and guests guitarist Bobby Broom and bassist David Williams are all consummate pros, polished and professional when they need to be and also able to take off when the spotlight hits. Austin maintains such an easy, friendly tone in his band and he seems to guide them all equally with his economical piano playing, which is gentle and precise and anchored to those incredible melodies.

What comes through on this debut album most clearly is Austin's love and respect for Stevie Wonder, something that I share as well. "James regards Stevie Wonder as one of the greatest composers of our time," it says on the liner notes, and it's hard to dispute that. I came to Stevie Wonder relatively late in life, around the same time I also discovered my love for Marvin Gaye. As I said in the Mark Winkler and Cheryl Bentyne review from earlier today, I was a Southern California rock and roll kid and it took many years to break free and discover new, wonderful things like the Stevie Wonder songbook. Austin seems like the kind of man who was already there from an early age, knowing these special melodies that were probably passed down to him by family. This music lives deep in his soul, and his respect for this material is beyond reproach.

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