James Austin, Jr
James Austin Jr. – Songs in the Key of Wonder
Chicago native and jazz pianist James Austin Jr. had been thinking about the music of Stevie Wonder long before he decided to go into a studio and create Songs in the Key of Wonder, a straight-ahead jazz album featuring some of Wonder’s biggest hits and album cuts. Austin has been writing arrangements to Stevie Wonder tunes for years, and decided to record an album paying tribute to Wonder after someone suggested that he do so. The tracks on Songs in the Key of Wonder feature some of those older arrangements along with some he wrote specifically for the project.
Austin brings some solid credentials to this project. He grew up playing in church and studied classical piano for a while before developing a strong love for jazz music in high school and college. Austin was a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and has played for jazz, R&B and gospel artists such as Ledisi, Lelah Hathaway, Donnie McClurkin and Brian McKnight.
Austin’s familiarity and comfort with all of those genres is apparent throughout Songs in the Key of Wonder. However, it is most notable on cuts that may not be the first numbers that come to mind when fans think about Songs in the Key of Life, Innervisons or Talking Book – songs like “Another Star,” “Golden Lady” and “You’ve Got it Bad Girl” – three of the cuts featured on Songs in the Key of Wonder.
The Latin flare that Austin brings to his piano playing through the Afro-Cuban salsa along with the percussion work of Samuel Torres allows the band to double down on the Latin feel that Wonder endowed on “Another Star,’” while the funky and assertive bass playing gives the track an urgent feel. Additionally, the track features the staples of on point improvisational creativity along with the communication among all the players that shows Austin’s ensemble are individuals who know how to work together as a team.
Austin’s piano playing is strong throughout this set and particularly on ballads such as “Overjoyed” and “Lately.” Both are tracks loved by fans and artists alike and have been covered by the likes of Jodeici and Victory Boyd. Austin begins “Overjoyed” by working with drummer Coby Watkins while tenor man Jarrard Harris plays the melody. Then Austin jumps in with his signature creativity as an improvisor. “Lately” becomes a melancholy musical dialogue between piano and bass as these two rhythm instruments add expression and emotion to the melody.
With Songs in the Key of Wonder, Austin and his top flight sidemen, drummer Watkins, saxophonist Harris, percussionist Torres, along with guitarist Bobby Broom, bassists David Williams and Ben Rubins, and trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, all understand the complementary relationship that exists between straight ahead acoustic jazz and popular music. Historically, of course, this brought to mind the pop songs and showtunes from the early and mid-20th Century. However, if jazz is to continue making inroads to a new generation of fans musicians must approach the work of the new American Songbook with the same understanding and respect as they approached the House of Gershwin. Austin shows that kind of respect to the work of Stevie Wonder and the results are clear on this album. Solidly Recommended.
By Howard Dukes