The Wonder YearsSFJAZZ Collective celebrates The Music of Stevie Wonder for four Samueli Theater shows on March 23 and 24
By Cristofer Gross
Deprived of sight by an incubator malfunction after arriving two months prematurely, Stevland Hardaway Judkins nevertheless grew into a child prodigy on piano, drums and harmonica, a teenager who wrote and recorded number one hits for Motown, and ultimately a musical visionary who re-named himself Stevie Wonder.
Wonder has been recognized with 22 Grammy® Awards, tops for a solo male performer; the second Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, after Paul Simon; and nearly 50 tribute albums from musicians around the world.
Last year he received what may be the jazz world's highest tribute when he became the eighth composer—and first non-jazz artist—to inspire a program of new arrangements and compositions from the all-star SFJAZZ Collective. Annually since the Collective was founded in 2004, its eight marquee musicians have each contributed a new arrangement of a song by that year's subject and an original piece inspired by him. Each year's 16 new works are then performed on a national tour and recorded live for a limited edition, multiple-CD set.
The Wonder year proved so popular with the musicians and their audiences that the tour was extended into 2012, and arrives at the Samueli Theatre for four shows over the weekend of March 23–24.
While the SFJAZZ Collective's membership is fluid—a total of 20 have participated so far—the instrumentation is fixed. As a result, the sound has remained surprisingly consistent and identifiable. At the core of the music's energy and richness is the group's "collective" philosophy: bringing together performers who also compose and arrange, and giving them an equal share of responsibility and credit.
The arrangements can take advantage of the full ensemble, or create exciting configurations of duets, trios, etc. At full throttle, SFJAZZ leads with a powerful four-horn frontline of alto, tenor, trumpet and trombone, which is then supported by waves of vibraphone and piano, and driven by a rhythm section of bass and drums. Any one of them is capable of launching into searing solos. The New York Times' jazz critic Ben Ratliff called it "a superbrain for what serious jazz sounds like now."
The eight Stevie Wonder songs included in the 2011 songbook range from the obvious—trumpeter Avishai Cohen's arrangement of "Sir Duke," Wonder's 1976 salute to jazz legends from Songs in the Key of Life— to the obscure— trombonist Robin Eubanks' arrangement of "Race Babbling" off the 1979 documentary soundtrack, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.
The saxophonists, alto Miguel Zenón and tenor Mark Turner, arranged "Superstition" and "Blame it on the Sun," respectively, from 1972's Talking Book. (Zenón, the only remaining original member, is out for the extended tour due to previous commitments, and will be replaced by Antonio Hart, another popular veteran known for his work with Roy Hargrove and McCoy Tyner.)
The earliest selection, 1969's "My Cherie Amour," is arranged by pianist Edward Simon, and the most recent, "Do I Do," is one of four original tunes on the 1982 greatest hits package Original Musiquarium 1. It was arranged by drummer Eric Harland.
Bassist Matt Penman chose the much-covered "Creepin" off 1974's Fulfillingness' First Finale, while vibraphonist Stefon Harris picked "Visions," from 1973's Innervisions.
"Do I Do" was an easy choice for Harland, who along with Penman has been in the Collective since the second year and appeared at the Samueli with Taylor Eigsti in 2008.
"I grew up listening to Stevie's music," he said. "‘Do I Do" was an absolute choice because of that wonderful epic Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo and how they jam out at the end. They were just having so much fun."
Harris, who was here with his band Blackout in 2009, was similarly drawn to "Visions." "I specifically looked for a piece that did not have a drum set part," he told Revue. "I thought that would give me more rhythmic liberty. Plus, I just love the lyric, the mood, and especially the melody. The first thing I look for is a great melody, and that one just played really well on my instrument and had a lot of possibilities."
Harris, who was born the week Wonder released "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," will turn 39 on the first day of Center concerts. He joined the Collective in 2008 for the Wayne Shorter year, taking over for the great Bobby Hutcherson. He recently recorded Ninety Miles, an international collaboration between himself, saxophonist David Sanchez, trumpeter Christian Scott, and Cuban pianists Rember Duharte and Harold Lopez-Nussa.
Something about the Collective, however, keeps him coming back.
"There's all this freedom onstage and creativity that flows from a great jazz ensemble," he said. "The way it's structured lets us really be influenced by the music of the chosen composer. We study their music before writing our arrangements and then write our originals. You can't help but be influenced.
"It's really a near-perfect structure," he continued. "Everyone brings their own flavor to it. For me, it's an ensemble that is very much alive and about the sound of today."
And, with the music of Stevie Wonder at its heart, that sound is timeless.
Cristofer Gross is a frequent contributor to Center publications.
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