Jazz CD Reviews

Yoron Israel & High Standards – Visions/The Music Of Stevie Wonder – Ranja Music

Jazz tribute to Stevie Wonder glows with musicality.

Published on October 24, 2013

Yoron Israel & High Standards – Visions/The Music Of Stevie Wonder – Ronja Music YI3072, 60:40 [9/26/12] ****½:

(Yoron Israel – drums, percussion; Lance Bryant – tenor/soprano saxophone; Lazio Gardony – piano, keyboards; Ron Mahdi – bass; Thaddeus Hogarth – guitar, harmonica; Larry Roland – spoken word)

The music of Stevie Wonder has been translated into jazz with fertile results. Starting with his breakthrough album Talking Book, Wonder’s songs have utilized jazzy chord progressions and time signatures. The socio-political emphasis has connected to a global audience. Yoron Israel is a gifted drummer from Chicago. Like Wonder he embraces world music, funk, gospel and jazz idioms. His last three releases (Basic Traneing, Chicago, Live At The Blue Note and A Gift For You)  garnered acclaim from critics and fellow jazz artists.

Like many of his contemporaries, Israel is involved with the educational community. He is currently the Assistant Chair & Professor of Percussion at the Berklee School Of Music. As an accompanist, he played with numerous jazz luminaries including Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Clark Terry, Lonnie Smith, Grover Washington, Kenny Burrell, Bennie Golson and Freddie Hubbard. As a band leader, he launched the careers of several emerging musicians.

With the High Standards Quartet (Lance Bryant/saxophone, Lazlo Gardony/piano, Ron Mahdi/bass), Yoron Israel’s latest project is a tribute to Stevie Wonder, simply titled Visions. With deft arrangements, nine different tunes are transformed. Unlike some tributes, this is more of a creative jazz interpretation. Opening the album is a cool jazz version of “Another Star”. Lance Bryant’s tenor lead is fluid and melodic. Gardony, Mahdi and Israel form a tight rhythm section. Gardony handles a bluesy, percussive solo as the “trio” grooves before turning it back to saxophone. On a funkier note, “Bird Of Beauty” starts with a nasty downbeat morphing into  a Latin “quasi-bossanova” jam. Israel displays impeccable timing and range on drums and the addition of soprano saxophone is evocative.

Among the selections are some standard ballads. But they are not predictable. “All In Love Is Fair: gets a spacey drum brush intro, and lyrical, delicate piano lead. Gardony has an adroit touch on piano (including some descending chords), and Bryant’s slow dance tenor is fluid. The waltz-time shift is very effective. Up-tempo pieces benefit from Israel’s arrangement flourishes. “Creepin’” (featuring another dynamic drum intro) has bop finesse and unusual timing. And “Contusion” which begins with spacey percussion and keyboards, explodes with the fusion intensity of the original version.

On an eclectic note, “Passionate Raindrops” (from A Time For Love/2005) gets a lift on harmonica from Thaddeus Hogarth who fits seamlessly with the quartet. A gem from the 1972 breakthrough Music Of My Mind (“Where Were You When I Needed You”) glides with finger-snapping prominence. Two versions of “Visions” appear on the album. Both the full cut and reprise contain spoken word from Larry Roland. This composition has always captured the narrative imagery of Wonder and Israel’s treatment maintains its authentic vibe.

Visions will delight both jazz and Stevie Wonder aficionados.    

TrackList: Another Star; Bird Of Beauty; All In Love Is Fair; Creepin’; Visions; You Are The Sunshine Of My Life; Contusion; Passionate Raindrops; Where Were You When I Needed You; Visions (Reprise)

—Robbie Gerson

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