The Berklee College of Music is world famous for churning out the best and the brightest artists to hit the jazz scene on a consistent basis. With drummer, composer, and arranger Yoron Israel currently serving as Assistant Chair and Professor of Percussion at Berklee it is of little wonder that the talent hitting the clubs and concert halls on both a local and national level are of such consistently high standards. The new release Visions - The Music of Stevie Wonder is not simply a ten track cover release of the expected greatest hits. Yoron Israel goes deep catalog and while taking some songs that may strike an immediate chord with the hard core Stevie Wonder fan, he digs deep and deconstructs some more eclectic offerings and does a masterful job at recreating the work of an acknowledged master to fit his own unique artistic voice.
In terms of a performance resume you can list such luminaries as guitarist Ed Cherry, organist Kyle Koehler and tenor and soprano saxophonist Billy Pierce. Israel is a dynamic performer seemingly not content with the status quo but highly respectful of the immense body and artistic significance attached to Stevie Wonder's immense discography. Israel has several ensembles with which he performs but here we are treated to his 4tet High Standards. As a leader Yoron Israel lays comfortably in the pocket while the group dynamic fully develops on tunes such as "All In Love Is Fair" and "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life." The inherent groove associated with virtually all of Stevie Wonder's compositions makes for a seamless transition under the skillful pen and hands of Israel. For a great many artists, covering one Stevie Wonder tune is a daunting task but to attempt to reharm ten tunes while never mangling the beautiful melody could very well be the musical equivalent of tap dancing in a mine field. The selection of some lesser known but equally as impressive Wonder tunes sets this collection apart from the vast majority of others that have crashed and burned in the attempt.
A wonderful hybrid of lyrical texture reinforced with both Latin and African influences in a more traditional straight ahead or hard bop setting works incredibly well here. Avant-garde improvisation is readily available and in full effect but never to the point of forcing the listener off the edge of a melodic cliff. Yoron Israel draws from within as well as his exemplary academic career to take on the daunting task of doing his own riff on Stevie Wonder and he slays it.
Incredibly entertaining for the casual listener or studious professional!
Tracks: 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.
Personnel: Yoron Israel: leader, drums & percussion; Lance Bryant: tenor and soprano saxophone; Lazlo Gardony: piano, keyboards; Ron Mahdi: bass; Thaddeus Hogarth: guitar (2), harmonica (8); Larry Roland: spoken word (5,10).