Chicago-native James Austin Jr., is bound to captivate audiences with his inspired debut, “Songs in the Key of Wonder.” As its title suggests, the album is a tribute to Wonder. The overall style is a sort of smooth jazz with touches of r&b and pop, and sometimes, Gospel.
Even audiences who are only casually familiar with Wonder’s work will recognize most of the 10 songs contained on “Songs in the Key of Wonder.” Radio fare such as “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Part-Time Lover,” and “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” grace the disc. The songs show well what Austin is capable of as a bandleader and musician. “My Cherie Amour,” “Tuesday Heartbreak,” and “Golden Lady” are also included, the latter of which might or might not be known to those who mostly know of Wonder through his most popular tracks.
About James Austin Jr.
Besides being an ardent Stevie Wonder fan, Austin is the protege of a variety of legendary musicians, including jazz educator Barry Harris. Austin has garnered a litany of awards including having been selected as a semi-finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano competition.
How Austin arrived at the point where he became an award-winning phenom probably has to do with the opportunities he has had to perform with well-known musicians and singers.
Austin has made a name for himself performing at such notable places as Carnegie Hall and elsewhere around New York City. He has also performed around the globe. Because of his breadth of experience, Austin is no stranger to high-profile events, and has provided music for countless celebrity functions and televised shows. Austin has also been involved with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center since its inception.
Perhaps Austin has been too busy to put out a debut album. But with his talent and experience, it does seem as if a debut album is overdue. While not the first musician to cover Wonder’s work, Austin does add a special twist that make them sound new again.
“Isn’t She Lovely” by James Austin Jr.
It should be noted that the songs are all instrumentals. Those familiar with what happens to vocals-based songs are that there is an overly stiff attention paid to the notes that comprise the vocal line. The notes sound overly staccato and detract from other things that might be happening in the instrumentation. That doesn’t happen here, thankfully.
It is clear that the vocals are being replicated, but to do that, the instrumentation is not being played harshly, which doesn’t always happen. The song opens with a slow, horn rendering of the chorus. This motif plays until the song kicks in at full tempo. Still, the horns take the spotlight. The piano and drums support the horns in their rendering of the lyrical line. Later, there is a piano showcase. The trademark piano runs from the original are included here, too.
The piano isn’t the only instrument that gets a chance to shine. The drums are highlighted, too. Throughout they shimmer and crash. The entire song feels like new jazz with classic underpinnings. This makes the effort here sound thoughtful.
“Part-Time Lover” by James Austin Jr.
Austin, during the course of this this disc proves himself to be generous with his arrangements. It would be easy, or expected, to have the instrument played by the bandleader to be the one afforded the lyrical line and in some ways bearing the biggest burden for interpreting the song. However, that doesn’t happen. Other instruments are allowed to shine in their duties as replicators of the lyrical line.
For the most part, the guitar shares the work of playing the lyrics along with the piano. The exchange that they have makes this version sound fresh. The lyrical line replication is mostly exact, but it is free enough to soar above the rest of the instrumentation, before coming back and rejoining the rest of the soundscape. This happens whether the guitar or the piano plays the line.
Austin’s debut album is thoughtful and brimming with talent. His work is something jazz fans should look forward to.
“Songs in the Key of Wonder” is scheduled for release Aug. 3, 2018.