Trumpeter Jason Palmer’s intriguing new release is the second in his planned “series of homages to singers who have produced powerful music,” which began three years ago with his Minnie Riperton tribute, Take a Little Trip. Wondaland is more contemporary, celebrating the artistry of Janelle Monáe via jazzed-up arrangements of her songs, all but one drawn from the eclectic R&B star’s much-lauded 2010 album, The ArchAndroid.
Palmer isn’t alone among his jazz contemporaries in admiring Monáe. She featured Esperanza Spalding on the track “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” from her The Electric Lady, and the theatricality of Spalding’s new Emily’s D+Evolution project, as well as her singing, both suggest Monáe’s influence. But Palmer’s album makes his admiration overt, and he’s joined by an impressive young crew of mostly current or former members of his working band at the venerable Boston club Wally’s Cafe, located just up Massachusetts Avenue from his and their alma mater, Berklee College of Music.
Luke Marantz, Dan Carpel and Lee Fish make an able rhythm section on Fender Rhodes, bass and drums, respectively, with Marantz chipping in solid solos along with deft comping. Guitarist Greg Duncan’s soloing brings to mind Kurt Rosenwinkel on “Neon Valley Street,” “BaBopByeYa” and “Look Into My Eyes.” Rising-star alto saxophonist Godwin Louis shines on uptempo tunes (“Sir Greendown,” “Neon Valley Street,” the set-ending title track) and slower ones (“57821,” “Look Into My Eyes”). Palmer’s trumpet excellence is getting to be old news, and it’s on display plenty here. But he skips taking a solo turn on “Look Into My Eyes,” and overall seems more interested in building on the beauty of Monáe’s music with his arrangements than in flashing his chops. Which keeps this charming album a bona fide homage.Originally Published