MATT LEMMLER featuring Leah Chase / “I Just Called To Say I Love You”
Here are five selections from Portraits of Wonder, my favorite album of Stevie covers. Three big things to recommend this set.
First are the arrangements by New Orleans pianist Matt Lemmler. I believe he’s now in East Texas somewhere. I quote from his liner notes (written June 2001):
This CD is a tribute to the music of Stevie Wonder. About a year ago in June 2000, I remember working on defining the exact direction I wanted to give my debut recording. The idea of writing for a nine-piece ensemble and using musicians based in New Orleans was very appealing to me. As a jazz pianist, I could have easily recorded a trio CD, but I thought that it would be a challenge to arrange for a nine-piece ensemble. Once I decided the size of the group, the composer whose name immediately came to my mind was Stevie Wonder. With the music of Stevie Wonder as the base, I automatically felt I had to include vocalists as well as instrumentalists. His lyrics are just as important as his melodies. The Stevie Wonder songbook represents such a large body of work that it was difficult to make a selection of tunes for me to arrange. Out of his most popular tunes, I decided to favor the ones I knew best. Altering these songs, which had become so familiar to me, was an additional challenge. But after some time to reflect, I realized that jazz musicians have always altered songs written by great composers. Jazz artists have recorded tunes by George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, etc. Why not the music of Stevie Wonder? To me altering a composer’s song and recording it is the ultimate tribute. Thank you Stevie Wonder for the brilliant music you have created throughout my life.Lemmler’s arrangements are very, very good. Stevie’s harmonies are often far, far beyond the average (or even good) pop songs. Lemmler builds on Stevie’s song structure adding a second level of harmonic sophistication and producing charts that offer striking extensions and developments.
Which brings us to the second thing to check out. Notice how clean the ensemble plays. The dynamics are deft, the sound smoothly swelling and decaying, never too loud, never rushed. There are ten Stevie tracks and one Lemmler original on the album. I don’t have a favorite arrangement.
On the other hand I do have a favorite musician. If you want to study up for a master class on drumming for a jazz ensemble pay close attention to Brian Blade's work throughout. His use of the entire drum kit is impeccable. The rightness and sensitivity of his percussion accents are not only brilliant in their timing and in giving focus to the ensemble they are also varied and rich in imagination. Brian rarely repeats himself. Listen closely you won’t hear him ting-a-ling on the ride cymbal or incessantly clicking the sock cymbal on two and four.
Brian plays the drums like they are a piano and employs the full range of percussive colors that he conjures up with a sangfroid that borders on the godly. Obviously Mr. Blade paid close attention to Duke Ellington’s admonition that the truly hip are never ever so gauche as to be aggressive. Rather than pushing the band, Blade offers sagacious nudges and knowing percussive winks that are perfect accessories to the ensemble.
I had the opportunity to hear a live concert of this music with Brian Blade on drums. Man, you talk about sweet.
The third thing is the vocalists. My man George French is absolutely killing on this set. He elevates everything he touches. I particularly like the clarity and in-tune-ness of his vocal work. A lot of singers either fudge the notes or avoid taking risks, George French sings his heart out albeit with a cool worthy of Jerry Butler.
I would have easily chosen one of the George French arrangements as the feature were it not for the exquisite combination of Leah Chase delivering a superb reading of perhaps the most innovative of Lemmler’s arrangements on "I Just Called To Say I Love You."
Lemmler forces us to pay close attention to the lyrics and suddenly what I have usually thought of as a love song sounds like a “please take me back song.” (Actually a “Please, please, please, please take me back song.”) Until hearing Lemmler's versoin, I had never thought of this song in that manner.
Leah Chase is the daughter of New Orleans’ famed restaurateurs Leah and Dooky Chase. She steps both bravely and carefully through the minefield of raw emotions that is the subtext of Lemmler’s arrangement. I am very impressed with the almost embarrassing vulnerability that Leah’s vocals exhibit. (Of course Brian’s funeral drum strokes are appropriately ominous.)
This is a jazz cover at it’s best—taking a popular song and making it totally fresh yet totally consistent with the meaning of the song. I’m sure these jazz treatments will not appeal to everyone, but for we jazz heads: isn’t it lovely?
—Kalamu ya Salaam
What he's hearing
Hmmm.... So this is why we include not just the music but words too, huh? I listened to these tracks and wasn't all that impressed. But after I read Kalamu's write-up I thought to myself, let me put these tracks back on and see if I can hear what he's hearing. Sure enough, as soon as Leah started singing Stevie's lyrics, I heard it! I'm a big, big Stevie Wonder fan but I've always detested (and that's not an exaggeration) "I Just Called To Say I Love You." To me, it always sounded like a trite ditty written expressly for the purpose of selling a bunch of records to people about to get married or about to celebrate Valentine's Day. But Kalamu's hit on something. Or rather, this cover has hit on something. This is a completely different song. Amazing.
As Kalamu (rightly) guessed, these covers don't appeal to me as much as some of the other Stevie Wonder covers we've posted in the last couple of months, but I do like finding out that there's more going on than I'm hearing. And yes, both Brian's drumming and Matt's arranging and piano playing on "Ribbon In The Sky" are damned good. That one and "I Just Called..." are going to be staying in my collection.—Mtume ya Salaam
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