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Dave Pietro: Standard Wonder

The breadth and stylistic range of Stevie Wonder’s repertoire offers many treasures for jazz musicians looking for newer riches. Too often, though, jazz musicians explore Wonder’s music half-heartedly, never giving the compositions deeper investigations with harmonic, rhythmic and stylistic reconfigurations. Instead it seems that when a jazz musicians wants a fast, radio-friendly tune they dole out safe renditions of Wonder hits like “I Wish” and “You and I.”

Fortunately, alto saxophonist, flutist and arranger Dave Pietro and pianist and arranger Matt Lemmler understand the true riches of Wonder’s music, and both players exhibit enormous amounts of love and creative zeal to not cover his tunes on autopilot. If Pietro’s Standard Wonder and Lemmler’s Portraits of Wonder were released on major labels it would have been all too easy to cynically view these CDs as niche concept records designed to make inroads into the record market. These CDs, however, contain sumptuous arrangements that brilliantly recontextualize Wonder’s music without sacrificing the composer’s original emotional intentions.

Pietro, a fine fiery saxophonist and a talented arranger, places emphasizes on some of Wonder’s less-known material while simultaneously making the familiar tunes sound brand new. He treats Wonder’s once spaced-out “The Secret Life of Plants” to a gentle bossa nova and transforms the once-funky calypso groove of “Another Star” into a midtempo burner glowing with vibrant harmonic colors. Oftentimes when jazz artists interpret Wonder’s “Visions” and “Overjoyed” they stick too closely to the composition’s original sparse setting and languid melodies, but here, the introspective melody of “Visions” is insulated with rich, third-stream harmonies and Brian Blade’s sparkling drumming. Pietro detours away from the sap that many are shamelessly drawn to on “Overjoyed” and approaches it by way of an evocative fugue as horns march triumphantly behind’s Pietro’s gleaming alto, before the song unfolds as a transportive modern-bop number. “Contusion,” one of the few Wonder instrumentals, shakes off its original fusion coating, but not its bristling intensity as Pietro’s rides the loopy melody over a quicksilver post-Motown bop groove. “Go Home” escapes from the original’s horrible mid-’80s techno trapping and finds a more luring, bluesy B-3 organ setting. Throughout, Pietro and his magnificent septet invigorate Wonder’s music with ample improvisational and arranging imagination, making Standard Wonder anything but the rote standard.

Both in feel and daringness, New Orleans-based pianist and arranger Lemmler’s Portrait of Wonder is similar to Pietro’s Standard Wonder. In fact, both CDs feature Brian Blade propelling the music into orbit. In some ways, Lemmler takes on an even loftier challenge than Pietro because he investigates tunes that usually lend themselves to sappiness. Like Pietro, he couldn’t resist the modern African-American wedding song favorite “You and I,” but thanks to Lemmler’s melancholy piano accompaniment and sparkling arrangement, and Leah Chase’s soulful vocals, the song ebbs and flows gracefully. Lemmler’s arrangements shine brightly on the rumbling take of “Higher Ground” and on the driving, decidedly non-Latin version of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” His greatest feat, however, is his haunting reading of “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” one of Wonder’s most annoying (and overplayed) tunes. Whereas the original was a cheesy jingle, seemingly designed to be an AT&T commercial, Lemmler recontextualizes the song completely by giving it a dirgelike tempo as somber harmonies roam on top. Chase’s slightly detached but still emotionally poignant voice enlivens the lyrics’ edgy desperation, bringing out the once-ignored beauty of the song’s words.

Originally Published