James Austin, Jr. focuses on the Songbook of Stevie Wonder

THE VINYL ANACHRONIST

by Marc Phillips

 

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.

 

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