I spent an hour or so listening to Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life in my car today. Do you know the album? If you do, have you heard it recently?
For jazz pianists, this 1976 recording features Wonder playing a variety of keyboards, including acoustic piano, with a sophisticated harmonic vocabulary that comes directly from jazz. He even includes an instrumental track, “Contusion,” which was inspired by Chick Corea’s jazz fusion group Return To Forever.
The cool thing is that if you’ve been practicing a lot of jazz piano since you’ve last heard this music, you’ll now hear it with entirely different ears. Stevie even had jazz legend Herbie Hancock play the Fender Rhodes on the song “As.” Check out Herbie’s fills in between Wonder’s vocal phrases:
Wonderful, right? Follow his fingers up and down the keyboard with your musical ear and you’ll hear what I mean. I must have played this track 5 times in a row today!
And, if you’re more in the pop and rock world, you’ll soon hear that no one’s playing keyboards like this on pop records these days. Sure, John Legend and a few others could, but they’re stymied by the record companies, who don’t think that the musical public can handle a few 16th notes. (But the show “Hamilton” is proving them wrong in a big way!)
Here’s Wonder’s song “I Wish.” Even if you’ve heard it a lot before, take a moment and focus mainly on his keyboard playing on this. The rhythms are funky, with a gospel influence, and played with the type of rhythmic flexibility that we can all learn from.
Listen to “I Wish,” and imagine yourself playing the keyboard part you’ll hear in the intro and behind the vocals and horns:
Amazing stuff!!! Hugely influential and even more than that, this music still sounds as fresh today as it sounded when it was first played, 41 years ago. In fact, it might sound even fresher today, since we rarely if never hear anything this loose yet “in the pocket” in pop music today. Yes, this was POP music! Jazz, rock, R&B, pop; it’s all right there in the hands of the master, Stevie Wonder.
Enjoy, and go play some music today!