Is Stevie Wonder the most covered popular artist in the jazz world? From the singers to the pianists, with a hefty number of Flutes, Saxes and Clarinets thrown in, it seems as if his tunes are the backbone of what we might call the New Standards.
And why not? Not only are they well known, but almost always highly melodic, with insightful lyrics. Throw in that Stevie’s been known to use some interesting changes in his harmonies – he favors the black keys on the piano, so there are a lot of flats and sharps – and he is a natural for jazz musicians to use as a stepping off point.
A debut CD from James Austin Jr. is the latest all-Stevie tribute album. Songs in the Key of Wonder belongs near the top of the list for straight-ahead fans, as the young pianist leads his group through ten tunes from the Wonder songbook. Kudos to James not only for his arrangements, but for his song selection. Tunes like “Lately” and especially “Tuesday Heartbreak” are far less covered than say, “All is Fair in Love”, and he makes the most of them.
A Chicago native, Austin has been mentored by the legendary Barry Harris, and his love of bebop shines through on many of this solos. Now living and working in New York, he’s been making a name of himself on the scene, not only for his playing but for his work as musical director for singer Alexis Morrast.
Working with a mix and match group of musicians including Ben Rubens and David Williams on bass, Kobie Watkins on drums, Jarrard Harris on sax, Joe Magnarelli on trumpet, Austin never takes the easy way out in presenting familiar tunes. If “Isn’t She Lovely” has been overdone to the point of muzak, James still finds ways to take the familiar melody new places. He wisely kick-starts two tunes with the addition of Chicago native and guitar ace Bobby Broom (Sonny Rollins, David Murray).
Podcast 633 is my conversation with James Austin Jr., as he talks about the universality of Stevie Wonder’s music, how he narrowed down his selection of tunes to only ten, and some plans for the near future. Musical selections from Songs in the Key of Wonder include “Tuesday Heartbreak”, “Lately” and “Part-Time Lover.”