Stevie Wonder’s fifteenth studio album, 1972’s Talking Book, was developed to fully capture the beauty, drama and intricacies of life. Thirty-four-year-old pianist and composer Robert Glasper grew up under its influence, just as a number of generations have by now. Wonder’s musical landmark was the inspiration of Glasper’s current tribute concert, a program entitled Songs in the Key of Life, which recently premiered at New York City’s Harlem Stage Gatehouse. The connection is apropos: both Glasper and Wonder are connected through jazz (most specifically piano), as well as their ability to use music as a transcendent force while remaining rich and soulful.
Glasper’s tribute featured members from his own band, The Experiment, as well as contemporary R&B singers Eric Roberson, Stokely Williams (of Mint Condition) and Lalah Hathaway. The Roots drummer ?uestlove performed as a guest toward the end of the set, adding funk riffs and time-signature innovations to Glasper’s smooth performance. The show was mellow but full-bodied; Glasper was conscious not to do too much, stating at some point: “You can’t make too many changes to Stevie Wonder tunes.”
While each singer channeled what he or she loved and honored from Wonder’s expansive catalog, it was Lalah Hathaway who delivered the energy. She effortlessly delivered a full rendition of “Overjoyed” with her signature lustrous, smoky vocals while flowing seamlessly into “My Cherie Amour” and “Golden Lady.” Later, bringing on “Jesus Children of America,” the band came alive while her low notes sent chills through the crowd.
Glasper played his own piano tribute, “I Wonder” (his one original of the night), which brilliantly blended his own personalized chords, notes and movements with nods to Wonder. Of course, there can be no Stevie Wonder tribute without harmonica, and for that Glasper brought out Grégoire Maret—his playing recalled the improvisational, tweenage Stevie Wonder (whose debut album, lest we forget, was the jazz album titled The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie).
Glasper specifically shied away from Wonder’s most popular radio hits. “I don’t want to do the normal Stevie songs everyone hears,” he said. “He has too much music for that. People don’t really celebrate B-sides—like really dope, amazing songs you probably didn’t hear on the radio.”
The Harlem crowd did not seem to mind.