Review: Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder
By Perry Tannenbaum
Anyone who seriously follows the work of jazz instrumentalists and vocalists has likely realized that, for the last 30 years and more, the compositions of Stevie Wonder have become as much a part of his contemporaries’ songbooks as the works of George Gershwin were for Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald. Jazz covers of certain Wonder songs like “Sir Duke” or “All in Love Is Fair” are so ubiquitous that it came as no surprise that the latest Jazz Room concert presented by JazzArts Charlotte, Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder, should set out to explore the superstar’s songs for the length of a full concert at the Stage Door Theater. What did take me a little by surprise was that those songs – as well as “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Boogie On, Reggae Woman,” “Living for the City,” “Keep on Running,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” – could all be omitted from Lemmler’s playlist without crashing the quality of his concert. Perhaps we all take the bounty of Wonder’s output for granted.
Lemmler brought plenty of artillery to the occasion, leading a 10-piece band from the keyboard and deploying four vocalists to the singing chores, including his own tonsils. For his opening and closing tunes, Lemmler showcased his band, rotating his vocalists for the intervening eight songs. Beginning the set, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” was the only purely instrumental offering penned by Wonder, readily identifiable in a fairly long ensemble arrangement before Lemmler soloed and we had our first sampling of David Lail’s zesty tenor sax. The ensemble continued to be a substantial part of the mix when the vocalists appeared. A plucked bass intro kicked off Lemmler’s arrangement of “Ribbon in the Sky,” followed by some pleasing back-and-forth between the brass and the piano before the vocalists took over. Lemmler took the first vocal and his first guest vocalist, Matt Kelley, took the second. “Ebony Eyes” drew an even more colorful arrangement as Lemmler layered on another vocalist, Robyn Springer, into his chart, limiting his own role to the piano and giving trumpeter Eleazar Shafer some solo space. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” spotlighted Kobie Watkins’ percussion, Dave Vergato’s bass, Darrel Payton’s muted trombone, and some nice section work from the saxes around the vocal.
After Kelley returned with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and Springer had joined with him on a more satisfying “You and I,” punctuated by solos from Lemmler and Lail, I was expecting to pronounce that Springer had outsung Kelley on this night. But a couple of unexpected twists – and a whole new level – lay ahead as Lemmler introduced a third guest vocalist, Kevin “Mercury” Carter. Wait a second. Isn’t it a law that, after any vocalist you’ve introduced to your audience makes a second entrance, no new vocalists shall be introduced? Apparently not. Compounding the singularity of this moment, Lemmler was playing his first set in a three-night, six-performance engagement, and was apparently only fleetingly familiar with Mercury’s talents. He introduced him as “Mercedes Carter,” which really threw me, since I was totally unfamiliar with this singer. On the one hand, I’ve only heard of women named Mercedes; but on the other, despite a coordinated Afro-flavored outfit that was gender-ambiguous, Carter was sporting some serious facial hair.
So we seemed to be floating outside of binary territory when Carter lit into “Isn’t She Lovely,” scaling substantially into the treble clef after Lemmler’s vocal and Lail’s tenor with a smoothness that recalled Michael Jackson, the best vocal so far. But after a solid rendition of “Overjoyed,” Kelley returned and forced me to shuffle my vocal rankings once again as he absolutely torched a wondrous arrangement of “Part-Time Lover,” embellishing the wordless riffs on Wonder’s original recording to the point that they became a more freestyle scat. In between Carter’s two choruses, the last followed by a prolonged scat outro, there were exciting solos from Shafer and Payton, the latter unmuted this time on his trombone, and Lemmler’s best piano solo of this set.
Off that high, Lemmler came down to earth with his own original dedicated to Stevie, “S’Wondersong,” yielding the instrumental spotlight to Lail, Watkins, and alto saxophonist Harvey Cummings. It’s a bit awkward for a 10-piece band to go through the ritual of vacating a stage and returning to do an encore after wild audience applause. Lemmler opted to skip those formalities and, after the perfunctory coaxing from the JazzArts Charlotte emcee to justify our presumed reward, it quickly became obvious that Lemmler’s Storyville medley was an integral part of the show. Not only did the medley give the leader/arranger a chance to extol his New Orleans roots, it carved out space for all of his band members to toss off a valedictory solo. It also brought Lemmler home to the places where his vocal style sounds most forceful and comfortable, “The House of the Rising Sun” and “St. James Infirmary.”