Last week in Harlem, pianist Robert Glasper celebrated the legacy of Stevie Wonder at Harlem Stage, joined by his Experiment bandmates, stellar musicians and singers, Casey Benjamin, Derrick Hodge, Questlove, Eric Roberson, Laylah Hathaway, Stokley Williams (of Mint Condition) and others. “Songs in the Key of Life” was commissioned by Harlem Stage’s Waterworks program as part of its Uptown Nights series and audience members were enraptured by the sold-out performances.
Blind since birth, Stevie is a super genius, a multi-instrumentalist who can not only sing and play the piano—he also plays the harmonica, clavinet, drums, bass guitar, congas, bongos, melodica, keytar, accordion, and the harpejji. Stevie’s classic period from 1972-1976 included his definitive concept albums, Talking Book, Innervisions, and Songs in the Key of Life. They were the soundtrack that played to lighten some hard times. They conjured the beauty and complexity of love and humanity.
Although Wonder’s songs are known for being difficult to sing and to play, Glasper and friends delivered beautifully, celebrating Stevie’s iconic discography. Stokley Williams’ rendition of “Rocket Love” with Questlove on drums, and Roberson’s “Creep” with an incredible solo by Gregoire Maret on harmonica, started the late set last Thursday on a serious high note. Each of the artists composed the tribute in their own unique style, beautifully jazzy.
“I totally see Stevie as a jazz musician. The instrumentation, the music that’s happening under his voice is not easy to play. The way he orchestrates it together is hard like jazz but it doesn’t seem like it,” Glasper explains. “Stevie is a musician who loves jazz songs. Stevie mastered the way of being very complex and very simple at the same time and he’s done so many songs people love. He can make songs that the mainstream can understand and songs that are musically complex and sophisticated, which many people can’t do.”
As a storyteller, Stevie paints pictures of urban life without ever depreciating dignity or hope. Songs like “Living for the City”, “Higher Ground” and “Pastime Paradise” reveal an understanding about racism, poverty and hatred and a need to overcome those things. It’s Stevie’s optimistic, humanitarian worldview that many music lovers appreciate as much as his classic love ballads and tunes.
“He has a freedom about his music that makes you feel that way, which is what jazz is about. He is very open. Even the harmonies of his songs and the solos are very much jazz influenced. Everybody has Stevie in their catalog somewhere, even classical people I know. He has harmonies for the musicians, lyrics and melodies for the music lovers,” Glasper says. “His songs reflect a bigger imagination. He looks at the world through different eyes, so descriptive and imaginative. He is able to tap into feelings and vibrations and that sense of more.”
When Stevie sings “Don’t You Worry About A Thing” people listen and sometimes feel better about the world, even if for a moment his music can suspend apathy. That’s powerful. So when Laylah Hathaway (daughter of soul legend Donny Hathaway) belted her interpretation of “Jesus Children of America” at Harlem Stage, the room was still and everybody nodded.
In 2009, Stevie Wonder was named a Messenger of Peace by the United Nations. Recently, he cancelled a performance in Israel due to the war in Gaza against Palestine, once again demonstrating his love and respect for world peace.
Even during today’s difficult times, many people still find themselves turning to his music to renew their spirits. In that, lies part of his genius and beauty as an artist. Few artists can connect with the true essence of humanity in this way so consistently. Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield all share that ability and authentic nature with Stevie, a deep understanding of the times in which we live and a desire to use music as a healer and a motivator, communicating in ways that connect profoundly, never superficially.
“Many people look at him as a leader of a generation who is aware. I think people forget that without Stevie Wonder there would be no Martin Luther King Day. He was always an advocate for fighting for what’s right,” Glasper says. “He wrote about what was going on all the time. I tell musicians that. Music has to represent your lifetime. The older cats already documented what happened in their lifetime. We have to document what’s happening in ours.”
Another part of Stevie’s legacy was his ability to communicate with a diverse audience and he, like Glasper, enjoyed collaborating with other musicians. Over the years, Stevie collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Elton John, Dionne Warwick, Tony Bennett and Beyoncé.
“Now I’m able to appreciate more the music I heard by Stevie when I was young. He’s doing something that I want to do that penetrates all genres and people. Back in the day the industry looked for people who were different. I think what’s good about music now is there are a lot of musicians that are in college and study music. Jason Moran, Beyoncé, Erykah Badu, Stokley Williams –they all studied music from high school through college,” Glasper asserts. “Yeah, there’s a lot of music out there what’s pretty wack that lacks integrity. Stevie has always been a musician that marched to his own beat and artists can learn from that. He always mixed and mingled with artists outside of his own genre. He was about creating community. He was about the art.”
Glasper as a bandleader and producer seems to truly appreciate celebrating fellow musicians. He was nominated this year for two Grammy Awards for Black Radio, his fifth album which features Laylah Hathaway, Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Chrisette Michele, yasiin bey (formerly known as Mos Def) and more.
For more info about Harlem Stage’s Uptown Nights series visit: www.harlemstage.org
For more on Robert Glasper visit: www.robertglasper.com