VARIOUS ARTISTS / “Stevie Visions Mixtape”
You know we’ve been featuring Stevie seems like forever and yet we never get tired or bored. Always new Stevie interpretations to find and enjoy to the highest. What’s different this time is rather than one selection as the feature, I’ve prepared a mixtape with the different cuts segueing directly one into the other. No breaks, no pauses. Just one smooth listening experience—well, not really just "smooth" because we have ballads but also medium-to-up tempo tracks, and the vocal selections are bookended by two instrumentals.
Here is my guaranteed Stevie Songbook Chill-Out Session—if you ain’t mellow after an hour with these sounds, I don’t believe there any help available for you.
Note: a handful of these I've selected before (Vanessa, Stephanie, Matt, Nnenna and Keb’ Mo’) but I repeat them here because they fit so well into the mix. Most of the selections are first time BoL picks. I didn’t have a particular favorite, so here’s the whole enchilada.
The tape kicks off with French trumpeter Stephane Belmondo easing his horn into “You Will Know.” I like this cat’s tone on flugelhorn, you can hear his breath but there’s also a tart sweetness there, sort of like chocolate with a twist of orange rind or maybe pistachio nuts. Plus the backing band plays and interacts with the lead horn, especially the drummer adding deft cymbal touches and nice rimshots that vary from just hitting on the four downbeat to hitting with some soft triplets. Stephane reminds me of Freddie Hubbard in his phrasing and also has the beauty of Art Farmer in the timbre of his brass sound.
Then comes Mary, Mary, the contemporary gospel duo. The sisters do a nice job of lining out "You Will Know," kicking the religious significance of the lyrics up a notch but again the background is what really lifts the overall sound. Whoever arranged this version and whoever that is on bass, all I can say is they really, really did a solid job.
Vanessa Rubin makes “Superwoman” sound both autobiographical and uplifting, when it’s neither; just one of those haunting Stevie Wonder songs that most men would never think to write but which Stevie does so well. I don’t listen to Ms. Rubin that much but every time I do, I am both delighted and chagrined. She sounds so good, I wonder how come I don’t check her out more often. My bad. Sister lady gives off truly deep goodness vibes. If I had produced this recording I would have used slightly less echo on her voice and employed real strings rather than synth strings. The warmth of sister love’s voice carries the song despite the artificial sweetening. I also like the subtle curlicues she puts on the end of her phrases, plus she has plenty of power in reserve and really, really good intonation. Yeah. And need I mention the New Orleans street beat?
Stephanie Renee struts out her neo-doo wop (which is way deeper than neo-soul ‘cause neo-soul generally ain’t nothing but half-assed retro-soul). Stephanie offers up a unique take on “Ribbon In The Sky.” Hey, Step, you got more like this?
Ms. Renee is followed by my favorite version of "Ribbon In The Sky" done jazz style by New Orleans pianist/arranger Matt Lemmler featuring vocals by Mr. George French. We featured Lemmler last month, so I don’t need to write more, besides you’ve got ears, you can dig for yourself how hip this is.
Nnenna Freelon jumps all over “Send One Your Love” like a lover come home after four or five months gone, goo-gobs of honeyed kisses and just a grinning from ear to ear. This a singing telegram, a lip-delivered personal message, one heart to another. Sweet.
And sweeter than sweet is Sexto Sentido, a vocal quartet from Cuba (you know I’m going to feature them soon). There harmonizing is sublimely ethereal. How they get their tones to match up is the secret ingredient. This is taken from their Russian-produced debut album that featured a bunch of covers, many of them in English (as good as this is, their Spanish stuff is even better). After the opening flourish, I really dig the piano kicking up its heels, stomping away like this was the last tango in Santiago; plus, got to mention the magical conga player and the tuning he employs on his drums, in fact the whole polyrhythmic rhythm section is in another league from what we usually hear as Latin jazz. And yet, finally, finally, it’s the harmony of four young women that is both the substantial sweetness and the cherry on top of this musical confection.
All I got to say is the next cut is Luther. Enough said. That man was one of the all time stylists of Soul music. There are a few people can sing the phone book and make it romantic; my man Luther was so strong as a songster he didn’t even need the names or addresses, he could just sing the numbers and make your little telephone ring off the hook. Again, magic is a catch-all phrase to describe what he did and how he did what he did, mucho black music magic.
Next is another distinctive voice: Maysa Leak fronting the Incognito outfit. This was deservedly one of their first hits. Here’s a combination of traditional black backbeat and all kinds of hints of Latin rhythms; horns and keys over percussion and Maysa floating on top with a touch of soft backing vocals. Maysa turns "Don't You Worry About A Thing" into one of the happiest songs you ever want to hear.
I’ve spoken highly of Keb’ Mo’ before, so I don’t need to repeat myself although I do need to repeat his contribution to interpreting "Isn't She Lovely" from the Wonder songbook. This is like when your uncle from the country comes to visit and brings some of the sweetest peaches you ever bit your teeth into and sucked your lips upon: firm, succulent and Georgia sunshine sweet. And Unk (i.e. the familial way in which the family referred to Uncle Ross) wouldn’t do nothing but grin as the juice ran all down your chin, throw his head back, his hat still at a dangerous lean atop his head, just rear back and laugh out loud at how excited you was to be eating some fresh growed fruit from his mama’s tree what been bearing fruit since Unk was a boy himself. And how that man could sing, not like opera, more like a deep-voiced angel; I mean he could kind of pat his foot and dance with lil sis, her with her feet atop his brogans, and they would just be a twirling round the front room and he would steady be ringing out a song. Do they still make music like this, mens like this? Do they still do like Keb’ Mo’ do on this Stevie Wonder song?
On the other hand, here’s cousin Marion (Brown), the one who took his college-honed horn and ran off to New York, cut a double handful of records for labels nobody could hardly find or else the labels let his albums go out of print. Either way, it’s hard to find his work now. The system says it’s because he was playing music most people didn’t listen to. But you know, how could they listen to it if the records weren’t available? Plus, all the industry bull notwithstanding, every now and then Marion would come up with something strong as the dirt back home, something that reminded you of the warmth of Southern sunshine in the wintertime. Had my man Bill Hassan singing Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” song on a jazz record. Made you listen. Absolutely stop what you was doing and say, damn, who that is? Do he got a record? Next time I see Bill I’ll ask him if he recorded anything else, but far as I know, this is it. Marion was always good at finding the richness in us, and drawing it out with his music.
And we close like we opened, that’s Stephane Belmondo reprising “Visions” and leaving us drifting on a cloud of memories and reveries. Key lime pie made with real limes and tablespoons of honey rather than a cup of sugar. Yeah, that’s what Belmondo’s horn reminds me of: chilled, tart, key lime pie with real graham cracker crust and a sprig of mint sitting on top.
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So hope y'all dig the mixtape. Part of why I did it was I had a flashback to my radio djing days and missed how I would work the control board segueing seamlessly from one cut to the next, making it all sound like one long, beautiful, unbroken song. Missed that and wanted to see if I could do it with editing software on the computer. Hope you dig it?
It’ll take a minute to download but I think you will dig it once you do. Consider it the gift of a happy hour of Stevie Wonder music.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Two things I want to say about this mix. First, Kalamu did an excellent job of setting a mood and maintaining it. That sounds easy, but take it from someone who's made a helluva lot of mixtapes for friends and family and most of all for myself, it ain't easy at all. I was a big fan of some of the cuts (Stephane Belmondo, Nneena Freelon and others) and wasn't so fond of some of the others (Luther, Incognito, etc.), but in the mix, they all sounded good. I listened to it while I was running, so I got to hear it all straight through. That was a fast hour! I got involved in the vibe and next thing you know, an hour was gone. Nice.
The other thing is about Stevie's songwriting. We've said a lot already about how good Stevie is, but this mix drives home how much potential there is in Stevie's compositions. Most of these songs have a similar tone or vibe, but they also sound very different in the specifics. Meanwhile, Stevie himself has already cut definitive classic versions of all of these. And yet, these covers remain listenable (at worst) and superlative (at best).
Great mix, Baba. Don't know if I'll be doing one or not, but I'm digging this one.
—Mtume ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Monday, August 25th, 2008 at 12:01 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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