Stevie Wonder Songs, Refashioned and Repackaged
By BEN RATLIFF
Jazz musicians taking on Stevie Wonder’s repertory is an old story, but more recently it’s acquired a newer, more serious, and almost fashionable purpose. The pianist Robert Glasper was sure to get involved. His work, including this year’s album “Black Radio” (Blue Note), has shown how younger jazz musicians can merge naturally with hip-hop and soul without completely yielding to them.
Mr. Glasper’s way has to do with both looseness and intricacy: a loose frame and intricate, slip-and-slide languages of harmony and especially rhythm, built up through years of experimenting with a steady crew. At the Harlem Stage Gatehouse on Thursday and Friday, in a program called “Songs in the Key of Life,” he applied all of that to Mr. Wonder’s music, with a shifting cast. It included some of the guest singers from “Black Radio” — the R&B singers Lalah Hathaway and Stokley Williams — and others, both lower and higher profile.
In Thursday’s early set Mr. Glasper’s approach amounted to a fan’s versions. The performers hammered home the harmonies and chord changes that make the originals feel so good to the ear. They also relied on guests to stretch some areas into improvisations over vamps that might have profited from going longer and more abstract, pulling further away from the source material, even at the risk of disappointing an audience’s desire to hear a reasonable number of Mr. Wonder’s songs.
The rhythmic sensibility was theirs: the rhythm section of Mr. Glasper on piano and Fender Rhodes, the electric bassist Derrick Hodge and the drummer Mark Colenburg — replaced halfway through by Questlove, from the Roots and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” who played on Thursday only — made the songs sound tight and new, definitively lifting them out of the ’70s (and, in the case of “Rocket Love” and “Overjoyed,” the ’80s; one solo-piano ballad, “I Wonder,” was a Glasper original.)
But Mr. Glasper didn’t interfere with their basic structure. He can be a powerful pianist; his long single-note runs in “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” were like tall trees falling. He’s also a funny host, casually outrageous and self-deprecating. At one point he mentioned that Mr. Wonder’s songs are so complete that they don’t need to be pushed around much. He’s right, but then again he’s abundantly got the tools to do more with them.
It was the guests and soloists who did a lot of the pushing. Mr. Williams, from the Minneapolis band Mint Condition, built up into insistent, eccentric stretches of scatting and instrument imitating in “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” and “Rocket Love,” which also featured a supercharged, teeming alto saxophone solo by Casey Benjamin, a member of Mr. Glasper’s band.
The harmonica player Gregoire Maret played a solo on “Creepin’ ” that surged forward with more intensity and fewer notes, lending momentum to the whole band, including another guest singer, Eric Roberson. And toward the end of the set Questlove started making executive decisions with the rhythm, halving the time, dragging and stuttering the beats, intimating further stretching that could happen to these songs, and perhaps would in later sets.
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