In the aftermath of the intensity of composing and presenting Know Thyself, I have been contemplating where to focus my creative energies as I regroup from that. On a performance level, I’ve gotten into a good practice routine so far in 2010, but have been keeping my eye out for something more soulful to dig into as well. I am leaning towards an idea I’ve been tossing around for probably 15 years, doing jazz arrangements of the tunes from Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale album.

I discovered this album the summer after my sophomore year of college, courtesy of my then-roommate Roberto. I had been into Stevie from a young age (many of you have heard the story of how my revelation of wanting to be a musician stemmed from seeing Stevie play “Superstition” on Sesame Street) and had dug into albums from before that one (Signed, Sealed, Delivered; Talking Book; Innervisions) and after (Songs In the Key of Life; Hotter Than July). I had heard “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and that was pretty much it.

And yet somehow I had missed the album – didn’t even know it existed, in fact, and I had it in my head that I had heard all of his classic 1970s work. So when I heard this music for the first (and second and fortieth) time, it totally floored me. At some point I’ll blog about my favorite “non-hit” songs by Stevie, but every tune on this album felt like a classic to me. “Smile, Please” was a harmonically-rich revelation. “Creepin’” was one of the most sophisticated, beautiful tunes I had ever heard. “It Ain’t No Use” sounded like a heartbreaking, soulful standard. “They Won’t Go When I Go” was deeply haunting. And there were some well-chosen guest spots, including the Persuasions on “Please Don’t Go,” Minnie Riperton on a couple tunes, the Jackson 5 doing a high-profile cameo on “You Haven’t Done Nothing” and the great James Jamerson doing a much lower-profile cameo on acoustic bass (!) on “Too Shy to Say.” Meanwhile, this was the last in a series on which he played most of the instruments, and for me there’s something uniquely breathtaking about hearing Stevie’s playing and vocal harmonizing fill up a sonic landscape.

Is this Stevie’s greatest album? Perhaps not, though it belongs in the conversation. However, I realized in time that it is particularly well-suited to jazz arrangements. Doing jazz arrangements of rock/pop/R&B tune is a difficult thing to pull off (and is another thing about which I will perhaps blog in greater depth in the future). Many pop tunes are harmonically and/or melodically too static to fit idiomatically in an instrumental jazz context. Reharmonizing the chords and reworking the melody are always options, but at a certain point the character of the original song is lost, and when that happens, what’s the point? Well, if you want badly enough to arrange that tune, you go for it anyway and do the best you can. The best-case scenario to me, though, is when something about the tune lends itself to a jazz performance to begin with. I love “Superstition” as much as any Stevie-nut does, but simply can’t see how the song can be played as a jazz tune and still legitimately be “Superstition.

But every song on Fulfillingness’ First Finale lends itself to jazz. And, in fact, several of the tunes are functional as jazz tunes without any re-arrangement. “Bird of Beauty?” Done. “Too Shy to Say?” Yep. “Creepin’?” All set. Where will I go with these tunes? I’m not sure yet – I’ll probably do some re-arrangement even of the ones that already work as-is, while making sure to keep the character and nuance of the song. That’s what I tried to do when I arranged “Happy Birthday” (from Hotter Than July) for my Soul Force album. I changed and added quite a bit . . . but I also arranged the horns to articulate all of Stevie’s vocals on all three verses and the bridge syllable-for-syllable how he sang them. I don’t know how these new arrangements will come out, nor do I know what form they’ll take (album? gigs? cutting room floor?) but I’m excited to work on them, and that’s no small pertaters 🙂

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