Monday, December 19, 2011

The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie Opens The Career Of Stevie Wonder Well!

The Good: Decent instrumental performances
The Bad: SHORT!
The Basics: An obvious strong star to the auspicious career of Stevie Wonder, The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie is nevertheless short and more traditional jazz than groundbreaking Wonder.

I swear, I have never met anyone who talks about jazz who is not an expert in it (or an apparent expert in it). It seems every time jazz comes up in a conversation I am involved in, the parties involved quickly separate into two camps, those entirely ignorant of jazz and those who seem to know every jazz artist and performer who ever lived. It's a kind of "you either know it or you don't" mentality. But because Stevie Wonder is my Artist Of The Month, I was lucky enough to pick up his debut album, which is much more jazz-centered.

The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie, renamed on c.d. The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie Wonder was the debut of eleven year-old Stevie Wonder. This is an instrumental album and I've decided to approach it as I would a Classical album, describing the feel of each song because - lacking lyrics - the message is a bit more open to interpretation. Before he became an R&B and funk god, Stevie Wonder began with jazz and The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie is enough to make those of us not immersed in jazz want to hear more.

With only nine tracks, clocking out at an anemic 29:52, The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie has very little that is Wonder's unique work. He performs on bongos, drums, harmonica, organ, and piano over the course of the album, but he only co-wrote two of the songs and he was not involved in the production either. There are no lines sung, but it is a feel-good, swinging album that clearly establishes the instrumental prowess of Stevie Wonder, even though some of the instruments he plays are drown out by his accompanists.

"Fingertips" features Stevie Wonder on bongos and they are not the most prominent instrument on the track. Instead, this is a piano and flute-driven jazz number that is upbeat, but terribly repetitive. The piano and guitars play essentially the same three notes or chords over and over again, making it almost sound like percussion. The flute, then, has a chance to be expressive and it creates an intriguing and fast countermelody.

Stevie Wonder's harmonica is well-featured on "Square," a classic jazz piece that actually sounds like an upbeat version of "Fever." Wonder bleats out on the harmonica with a soulful resonance that is probably the closest he gets to vocals on this album. While the piano and percussion lay down a melody, his harmonica rings over it with a harmony that varies from being complimentary to the other instruments to being jazz scat on the harmonica!

"Soul Bongo" is another energetic number with Stevie Wonder beating his hands out against trumpets and saxophones. On this track, though, his bongos can be heard and he creates a frenetic sound that is indescribable. In fact, simply listening to the bongo part one has to be amazed that a human can hit drums with their hands that fast to make such a sound! Still, Wonder illustrates endurance and speed in playing on the bongos.

The sense of speed and simple sound continues on "Manhattan At Six." On that song, Wonder plays the drums and he does it with an enthusiasm that makes the listener rock back and forth. There is a Caribbean feel to the song and that type of energy and enthusiasm to the song that makes the title somewhat mystifying.

"Paulsby" is a jazzy number that actually reminds me of the theme to the animated "Peanuts," though I cannot say way. Wonder plays the organ and harmonica on it and this has a rich, big band/swing sound to it that evokes mental images of bright lights and dance halls. It is up-tempo and danceable and while it, too, lacks a strong melody, it has a cohesive theme and a decent sense of movement to it.

"Some Other Time" is a slower song with Wonder on the harmonica. As the bass and piano create a melancholy melody, Wonder harmonizes with his harmonica in a way that is pensive and there is the sense of autumn and reminiscing in the sound of the music. While the music has crescendos as it returns to its main refrain, there is generally a softer, slower, more contemplative feel to this song and the difference makes for a distinct track on an otherwise upbeat album.

"Wondering," one of only two tracks Wonder co-wrote, has Wonder on the organ, which he plays enthusiastically while trumpets and brass act more like percussion. The effect is actually hypnotic, especially as the organ becomes the central sound in the middle movement. Wonder is fast with his fingers and actually creates - back in 1963! - a song that one can imagine freestyle dancing to! "Wondering" is like the ultimate chase sequence theme with the organ and brass alternating in a way that feels like a pursuit!

The more subtle "Session Number 112" is similarly the ideal skulking theme. Wonder plays on the piano and harmonica and his piano work muses along until he pounds some deeper chords that act almost like the auditory version of a Pink Panther cartoon when he sneaks from the shadows around the light cast from a streetlight back into the shadows. There is a playful and mysterious quality to it that is actually fun.

The album closes with "Bam," which has Wonder on harmonica droning out against the pianos and drums in a very classical jazz sounding number that borders on swing. He closes the album with a harmonica solo that is soulful in a "back porch at sunset" kind of way. "Bam" is a good strutting song and it is hard not to imagine walking off into the sunset to it!

The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie suffers some from the fact that it is a reproduction of the original recording and thus does not use the c.d. medium all that well; two of Wonder's early albums could easily have fit on one disc and it is disappointing they were not consolidated, as they share many of the same musical sensibilities.

For those looking for non-threatening jazz (we non-experts need somewhere to start!) or who want to see how an artist evolved from the established order (in this case the jazz tradition) into his own (Wonder becomes a pioneer in R&B-based rock and roll) this is a great place to start. It is, however, quite short and while the mood is frenetic and upbeat, there is not much to come back to time after time.

The best track is "Some Other Time," the low point might well be "Fingertips," if for no other reason than Wonder's part is frequently drown out by the other performers.

For other works by Stevie Wonder, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I
Conversation Peace
Natural Wonder
The Definitive Collection
A Time To Love


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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