Robert Glasper Expands on Stevie Wonder
Dec. 13th and 14th at Harlem Stage Gatehouse
Stevie Wonder is an international treasure, or as Michael Jackson once proclaimed him, “a musical prophet.” The melodies he composed are tattooed in our souls; the rhythms he invented continuously knocks against the walls of our veins; the words he’s written and sang portray the intentions and actions of society’s collective id, ego, and super ego. His accomplishments aren’t measured by his thirty Top 10 pop singles, his twenty-five Grammy Awards or even his Oscar, but by the reverence his fellow recording artists display by covering his music. History has proven time and time again that the beauty of the Stevie Wonder catalog is each song’s interpretive malleability. Hank Crawford, Joe Farrell, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, Mary J. Blige, Donnie McClurkin are among the countless who saw something within themselves in Wonder’s work enough to do their own versions. This unofficial but time-honored tradition continued in December 2012 with a live, career spanning tribute from pianist Robert Glasper. Like Wonder, Glasper is using his piano chops and composition gifts to both alter and steer the narrative of Black music. His 2012 LP Black Radio—recorded with his unparalleled Experiment band—was a mission statement on the possibilities of so-called jazz music and its allegiance to rock, R&B, and hip-hop. In a year that Glasper arguably dominated the jazz conversation since the album’s February release, it’s fitting that Glasper bookended 2012 by paying homage to the man whose own unchained approach to the also-then formulaic confines of Black music is responsible for Glapser’s inspiration.
Harlem Stage commissioned Robert Glasper’s “Songs in the Key of Life: A Tribute to Stevie Wonder” as a part of their ongoing Uptown Nights Series. Glasper was tasked to perform his own arrangements to Wonder’s songs with musicians of his choosing. Not surprisingly, the foundation of this historic night was the aforementioned Experiment band of bassist Derrick Hodge, saxophonist/vocoderist Casey Benjamin and drummer Mark Colenburg, while also joined by guest guitarist Mark Moreno, synthesizer player Yuki Hirano and special guest drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots (played the first two selections). While the density of their chemistry was never in doubt, the choice of vocalists would prove critical, and Glasper turned to frequent collaborators Lalah Hathaway, Eric Roberson, and Stokley Williams of Mint Condition to sing Stevie’s visceral material.
Glasper was able to fashion each selection to the style of its respective vocalist. Electing no to pick obvious Wonder hits like “Superstition” or “Ribbon in the Sky,” the singers were able to get inside of the melody, inside of the story, inside of the rhythm. The evening kicked off with “Creepin’.” Roberson owned the song by walking the fine line between ecstasy and melancholy that gives the anthem of unrequited love its real heart. His hot-tea vocals were matched by languid bass from Hodge, followed by a lengthy but incredible harmonica solo from virtuoso Gregoire Moret. Next, Glasper took Wonder’s biting, edgy “Jesus Children of America” and turned into an even darker, ominous statement, taken home by Hathaway. While Hathaway normally sings on a plane higher than most vocalists in music today, that evening she was otherworldly, moving from husky baritone to a leering soprano faster than a finger snap. Simply put, if Mahalia Jackson was a jazz singer, she’d be Lalah Hathaway.
Though not on the official bill with Williams, Hathaway and Roberson, Grammy-nominated vocalist Gretchen Parlato was one of the touted “special guests” of the set. Parlato is a frequent Glasper collaborator; he arranged and co-produced selections from her on her last two albums, matching her ethereal delivery to unique takes on R&B hits like SWV’s “Weak” and Mary J. Blige’s “All That I Can Say.” Together they turned Wonder’s plaintive harp-based ballad “If It’s Magic” into a soothing rumba; something that could undoubtedly find a home on her next record.
Every singer shone in their own unique ways, but if any one vocalist dominated the evening, it was Mint Condition’s Stokley Williams, who was featured on three of the set’s seven songs. The first was “Rocket Love,” which found Stokley harmonizing with Benjamin’s vocoder. The combination of Glasper’s icy chords, Questlove’s staccato snare attacks and a haunting synth layering from Harano lowered the temperature in Harlem Stage at least five degrees. Switching gears, Stokley took on “Taboo to Love,” an underappreciated cut from Wonder’s 1995 LP Conversation Peace. While staying fairly loyal to the original arrangement, Stokley’s heart wrenching, melismatic crooning over Glasper’s classical ivory tickling made that performance better than Stevie’s – this is blasphemy, but accurate. From there, the band seamlessly eased into “You Will Know,” thanks to a gorgeous and deft bass segue from Hodge.
Eric Roberson and Lalah Hathaway both returned to end the evening with Roberson lusciously sliding through the first half of Wonder’s “Superwoman,” while Hathaway sang the song’s second half, “Where Were You When I Needed You.” The anchor of this finale was a feverish guitar solo from Moreno, matched to perfection by Colenburg’s earnestly shivering drum patterns. The night can be summed up by Roberson’s anecdote about the first time he heard Stevie Wonder’s music; “It was the first time I realized that someone put music together.” Indeed, he was, and is, a master building, and Robert Glasper’s architecture of Stevie Wonder’s music at Harlem Stage will stand tall forever in the minds of all those who got to witness this exquisite occasion.
Creepin’ (Eric Roberson)
Rocket Love (Stokley)
Jesus Children of America (Lalah Hathaway)
If It’s Magic (Gretchen Parlato)
Taboo to Love (Stokley)
You Will Know (Stokley)
Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You) (Eric Roberson & Lalah Hatahway)