A jazz take on the most soulful songs ever.
Overjoyed! The Music of Stevie Wonder
A jazz take on the most soulful songs ever.
From Music of My Mind to Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life, the improvisation-infused performances and massive grooves of the amazing songs of Stevie Wonder have inspired jazz musicians. Stevie’s unusual chord progressions and virtuosic melodies are the perfect vehicle for jazz explorations by SJW faculty artists, led by Bennett Paster. Stevie’s songs are always better with a great voice, and for this we’re thrilled to present Claytoven, a dazzling vocalist whose credits include singing with artists such as Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, Elton John, Peabo Bryson, New Kids on the Block, Ricky Martin, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, and many others.
Claytoven Richardson, vocals
Bennett Paster, keyboards
Josh Thurston Milgrom, bass
Allison Miller, drums
Peter Stoltzman, keyboards
David Yamasaki, guitar
Tupac Mantilla, percussion
Darren Johnston, trumpet
Lynn Speakman, alto sax
Dayna Stephens, tenor sax
Paul & Anna Turner
Bob Dylan and the Beatles sparked one of the more profound changes in American popular music, with a new and revolutionary concept as much as with a new sound. Rather than depending upon professional composers, they generated a stream of hits that ushered in an era defined by pop stars writing their own material. The sea change played an essential role in severing jazz from the pop mainstream, eclipsing a half-century epoch when jazz musicians served as unofficial gatekeepers for the American Songbook, selecting which songs generated by Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, and Hollywood would become standards. Stevie Wonder is the only singer/songwriter who emerged in the 1960s to consistently bridge the pop and jazz divide, with songs that have long served as vehicles for soulful improvisation.
Organized by veteran pianist/keyboardist Bennett Paster, whose relationship with SJW stretches back more than three decades, “Overjoyed! The Music of Stevie Wonder” celebrates Wonder’s enduring genius. “The reason to play Stevie’s songs is they’re such strong rhythmic and melodic statements,” Paster says. “The lyrics are often amazing, but the songs work as instrumental music. Unlike so much pop music today, they’re not primarily beat-based. He wrote super memorable melodies, and the chord progressions are just brilliant. You can reinvent or just play them. I yearn for the days when that was true popular music, with Stevie, Earth Wind & Fire, and Tower of Power.”
Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in 1950, Wonder was a prodigy who started recording for Motown’s Tamla label at 11 as Little Stevie. He scored his first number-one hit at 13, “Fingertips Pt. 2” (he still holds the record for the youngest artist to top the charts) and recorded numerous hits throughout the decade including “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Cherie Amour,” and “For Once in My Life.” But his most creative period was the 1970s, when Wonder released a series of classic albums that were conceived and created as overarching statements rather than a collection of singles. Playing most of the instruments himself, he started a breathtaking burst of creativity with 1972’s Music of My Mind and Talking Book, and continued with 1973’s Innervisions, 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life, and 1979’s The Secret Life of Plants. For this concert, Paster has created arrangements for piano and various keyboards, particularly Fender Rhodes, “the instrument on the records and an essential part of my musical voice,” he says. “I’ve been playing Fender Rhodes since the sixth grade.”
Paster has written several new arrangements for the concert, and others have been in his book for years, like a medley that connects “Superwoman” to “Where Were You When I Needed You,” or “Overjoyed” set to a 7/8 samba groove. “I’ve been playing ‘Sir Duke’ as a ballad,” he says. “People tend to race through it, but when you slow it down it sounds like a Billy Strayhorn tune, like the bridge of ‘Lush Life’ or something. My version of ‘These Three Words,’ a song from the Jungle Fever soundtrack, was inspired by Geoff Keezer’s solo piano arrangement.”
About half the tunes are designed as instrumentals and the others feature the vocals of Claytoven Richardson, a soul-steeped studio veteran who has contributed backup vocals to hit records by Elton John, Peabo Bryson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, and Celine Dion, among many others. Growing up in East Oakland, he received a top-flight musical education from UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program, where jazz pianist Bill Bell took him under his wing.
Richardson earned a full scholarship to University of Michigan as an oboe major, but didn’t start singing in public until a post-college gig playing saxophone and producing Bill Summers and Summers Heat. The former Headhunters percussionist overheard Richardson singing reference vocals for an upcoming recording and quickly recruited him to take over lead duties on the track. He’s worked prolifically as a session singer ever since.
“His work sounds amazing,” Paster says. “Jazz can mean playing with people you’ve known your whole life to people you just met. That’s part of the fun.”
Based in Brooklyn since 1996, Paster is a prolific composer and multi-faceted player who continues to explore new creative avenues. Encounters with Yosvany Terry and Dafnis Prieto at SJW on their first visits to the US sparked a passion for Afro-Cuban music and Latin jazz, and led him to launch Grupo Yanqui with bassist Gregory Ryan in 1999. The band has released two critically-hailed albums. His most recent solo CD, 2012’s Relentless Pursuit of the Beautiful is a tremendously assured, rhythmically expansive project featuring his original compositions and arrangements for a top-shelf quintet featuring Grupo Yanqui partner Ryan on bass and either Joel Frahm or Tim Armacost on saxophone. He also leads a straight-ahead trio, a Brazilian-inflected trio, Bennett Paster’s Funktet, and a project focusing on the music of reclusive soul master Bill Withers. Paster has spearheaded several previous SJF concerts celebrating Wonder’s music, most recently 2010’s two sold-out shows “Visions: The Stevie Wonder Songbook” featuring Oakland soul singer Derick Hughes and drum legend Ndugu Chancler. This one won’t be the last.
“Wonder’s songs are played again and again for the same reason as Rodgers and Hart’s,” Paster says. “They’re so strong and elemental. No matter how much you strip away, the songs are still great.”
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