"Michele Thomas takes her inspiration from Stevie Wonder, even covering some of his most familiar songs on Messenger. However, as jazzy as Wonder can get, Thomas is even jazzier than the iconic Motown artist.
She opens with “Have a Talk with God,” which leans heavy upon funky electric guitar. Thomas also reveals a bit of a feminist strain when she refers to god as ‘she’ toward the end of the track.
Another religious one (then again, God has been all through Wonder’s work over the years) is “Jesus Children.” This song was likely originally inspired by the Jesus People movement of the late 60s/early 70s, particularly in Southern California where churches like Costa Mesa’s Calvary Chapel were accepting hippies of that era with open arms, while many mainstream churches were trying to hold these long-haired, sloppily-dressed young people at arm’s length. Thomas’ version includes plenty of brass horn work and female backing vocals.
Perhaps the most straightforward jazz song on this collection is “Dee Song (For Andrea).” It’s backed not by a funky guitar part, but with a gentle, Joe Pass-like traditional jazz electric bed, and built upon complicated jazz chords. It’s a soft song that Thomas sings prettily.
“Higher Ground” is sung with the necessary anger. When Red Hot Chilli Peppers covered it, they did so as though it were some sort of fun funk workout. And while the funk groove is undeniable, to sing it without vitriol directed toward the powers that be only gets it half right. Thomas’ version is jazzy, with horns and more of a jazz-fusion feel, rather than some sort of 70s funk. Oh, and she sounds really angry on it.
For “They Won’t Go When I Go,” Thomas transforms the tune into a percolating number that has African music elements running through it. The guitar part sounds a little Nigerian in places. Thomas holds back her vocals when singing it and lets the guitar and simple organ part take up much of the sonic space. At one point, Thomas works in a few lines of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which was a hit – and a popular Civil Rights song – from the 60s.
Thomas gives “If It’s Magic” a breezy jazz feel. The track swings with a shuffling groove. It’s colored by acoustic piano and busy drumming. It’s also a little on the Latin side, stylistically.
On “Triple Play,” Thomas performs her most complicated jazz vocal. The song sounds to be in 6/4 at times, but it’s by no means any sort of waltz. Thomas spars with her electric guitarist throughout, which makes the song into a sort of guitar versus vocal duel. Thomas even scats a bit on the tune.
The album closes with “Big Brother,” and it returns a bit to the African roots Thomas explored with “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Once again, percussion is upfront in the mix. Her take on this song may remind you a little of Paul Simon’s Graceland recording. The song’s lyric is quite dark, as it’s sung from the perspective of someone living in the ghetto. Even so, Thomas infuses the track with a bright, upbeat feel. It’s almost as though she’s fallen in love with the melody; which, in this case, takes priority over the lyric. Even so, it sounds strange to hear Thomas singing in a Chaka Khan-like voice about roach-infested apartments.
Overall, this is a fun collection of reinterpretations. When someone can take such liberties with the original material, and never spoil the memories of Wonder’s version, shows just how strong Stevie’s compositions are. They’re so great melodically other artists can play with them and come up with new and beautiful covers. You may not even reach back for the old Wonder records quite so quickly after listening to this one. Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)"
Review By: Dan MacIntosh - ReviewYou.com
The Release of Messenger...
"(She) has her own vocal sound, which is beautiful by the Grace of God."
~Yusef Lateef, legendary jazz artist, Grammy award winner
Jazz vocalist Michele Thomas prepares for the CD release of her sophomore album, "MESSENGER" this coming summer ~ a release which features bright new arrangements of Stevie Wonder's most spiritually pensive and socially provocative songs.
From this daughter of a minister and progeny of Chicago’s gospel saturated Church of God In Christ (C.O.G.I.C.) denomination, it's no surprise that conscientious, message-filled music would be at the heart of her aesthetic milieu.
After years of working to establish her name in the Chicago jazz scene with her 1999 debut album, "I'LL TAKE ROMANCE", Michele has emerged with a new outlook on the state of jazz music...one that has lead her to blend a mixture of gospel, soul, and jazz, by which she strives to expand her appeal to a more diverse audience. Having already performed in some of Chicago's legendary music rooms, such as The Green Mill and Green Dolphin Street, she's already started out on solid ground.
“Message music” is a musical genre with a political, religious, or social message, the likes of which have always been a mainstay in Stevie Wonderʼs repertoire, and still ring true today. Considering the countless covers of Stevie Wonder's songs to date, "MESSENGER" seeks to promote the significance of his socially conscious music, despite an ever-changing society.
Although many critics and record execs held the opinion that "message songs" couldn't be popular, Wonder made songs with political, religious, and social topics which became hits. As Michele says, "...Stevie just clobbered the notion that a message song doesn't have mass appeal - and he did it by writing hit after hit of conscious-centric songs."
Thomas's unique mixture of musical influences comes through in this newest CD, which takes on some of Stevie Wonder’s finest pieces— songs that were carefully hand-picked to highlight the transcendent as well as politically charged subject matters which encompass such a great portion of Wonder’s body of work.
"MESSENGER" delves into the introspective mind and spirit of Stevie Wonder's compositions with reinterpreted pieces that are transported through the contemplative and soul-tinged vocals of Michele Thomas.
For this project, Thomas re-enlisted her most trusted and long-time collaborators: arranger Neal Alger - noted jazz guitarist and member of The Patricia Barber Quartet; and prominent drummer/ percussionist (as well as her husband) Darren Scorza, who also debuts his role as producer on this album.
Also coming together on this project are some of Chicago’s finest, such as bassist Bob Lovecchio, pianist Chris Mahieu, saxophonist Matt Shevitz, and trumpeter Joe Lill. Classics such as "Higher Ground" are given an "Isaac Hayes" treatment with funky guitars and gritty horn riffs, while more obscure tracks like “They Won’t Go When I Go” and “Big Brother” explore the most contemporary sounds of the Afropop movement.
But, fasten your seatbelts, because the exploration does not stop there. Michele also showcases the works of two other jazz composers, Hal Galper and Enrico Pieranunzi. Here she lends her lyrical supplementation to their instrumental works, “Triple Play," along with the lovely bossa, “Dee Song."
Thomas, who is very much an interpretive vocalist in the style of Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, has a clearly visible love affair with the improvisational spirit in music; the spirit that drives not only jazz, but all its multiple infusions of gospel, R&B, blues, and rock. All of these, of course, have been at the bedrock of true American classical music, but this also speaks to Michele’s many musical influences. These influences range from contemporary gospel greats such as Richard Smallwood (who, coincidentally, she shared a stage with at Pick-Staiger Auditorium in fall of 2006), to singer songwriters such as James Taylor, on to the soulsters like Donny Hathaway, and all the way to the definitive jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, just to name a few.
For an artist with a uniquely patch-worked background, having come from the rich heritage of gospel music and being an ambassador of the idiom through leading and founding her college gospel choir, to traveling to Europe to perform and teach gospel to Scandinavian audiences to her current burgeoning onto the Chicago jazz scene in which she's carved out her place in the city's music community, Thomas brings every part of her distinctive background into each performance she gives.
For Michele, creating and recording "MESSENGER" was truly a labor of love. She shares of her song choices that, “I’ve always appreciated that Stevie Wonder challenged the status quo when it came to social justice and religion as it relates to spirituality. I was both amazed and unsettled with how directly relevant the messages in his music are, even in our current times. Seems to me those messages bear repeating…”