Yoron Israel & High Standards – "Visions"- The Music of Stevie Wonder
One of the enlightening insights that drummer, bandleader, arranger Yoron Israel brings to "Visions" is that Wonder's hits are true jazz compositions, with inherent swing and groove.
Not only have the easy-to-love melodies of Stevland Hardaway Morris (b. May 13, 1950) become staples of the modern American soundtrack, they naturally trigger our most fundamentally human physical response: the graceful, unified movement of body and soul. The rhythmic impulse that Yoron Israel and each member of his quartet "High Standards" (pianist Laszlo Gardony, saxophonist Lance Bryant, bassist Ron Mahdi) locate and emphasize in this recording is uplifting, yet true to the each songs’ fundamental flow.
"The more intimate that I became with the music of Stevie Wonder, the more I appreciated the musical depth within his compositions. Although Stevie is associated with a different genre, in a different period, his works share that same essence as say Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane", Israel says. On "Visions", this foursome along with special guests, Thaddeus Hogarth (guitar and harmonica) and Larry Roland (spoken word), help Wonder's songs breathe, while embedding a spark of life within them, which makes the band's beautifully sensitive interpretations seem effortless and memorable, as if this is how these songs have always sounded.
Until now, "Another Star" has not so obviously been akin to a mid-tempo swing as performed by, say, Coltrane's classic quartet of the mid 1960s. But as Israel lays out its quietly intricate momentum and Bryant so mellowly launches the theme, while Gardony comps brightly and Mahdi plucks his plangent tones, the kinship is evident. Similarly, the samba based "Bird of Beauty" as Stevie Wonder recorded it in 1974 on Fulfillingness' First Finale is not obvious, and even when Yoron smacks the backbeat of his introduction here, we expect something else. However, when he falls in with Gardony, Mahdi and guest guitarist Thaddeus Hogarth to support Bryant's gleaming soprano sax flight, the Brazilian breeze is palpable, and the arrangement's counter-rhythmic tensions pull as inexorably as Fulfillingness itself.
For Israel, this is as the songs have always sounded, because, as he says, "This is how I've been hearing these songs in the back of my mind for years. About four years ago, I formed the trio "Key Players" – the instrumentation being; piano, organ and drums, reminiscent of a sound that I grew up hearing as a youngster at the Greater Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago IL. My work with the trio became the fertile ground that birthed this particular collection of songs".
Furthermore: This recording, Yoron continues, "parallels my personal life, in terms of unlocking the power within a vision. I recently became the full-time dad of my three daughters, after having been a father from afar for 10 years. But I'd always had, over all that time, a vision – a strong image, which was with me daily – that eventually I would have physical custody of them. The idea of visualizing something, then making room for the manifestation, through your physical, emotional and spiritual preparation, is a powerful leap of faith; a leap that became my reality, marked by the formulation and completion of this recording."
"All in Love is Fair," for which Israel picks up his brushes, is a sadder-but-wise statement so affecting its message is as good as etched in words. The dreamy yet insistent feeling of "Creepin'" is evoked by Israel and especially Gardony in a multi-faceted solo, followed by Bryant's straightforward choruses. The coherence of the musicians, by the way, is evident in this track, as well as every other track on the album.
For “Visions”, Israel commissioned Larry Roland, a spoken word artist to create and perform a poem from his prosaic thoughts for the title track, resulting in a defining moment;
"Visions - A Divine Blessing surely to behold and to cherish, 'cause it’s been said that a people without one are destined to perish! VISIONS of Love, Unity and Health valued beyond banks dividends in the growth of wealth, transcending all that rest on sinking sand, valued beyond histories cards that's been dealt to humbled hands! VISIONS of Faith, Hope and Charity, like the Suns rays' offering fruitful light & clarity, In the flickering dim of time to be acted on to help uplift the spirit of and Inspire to seek the realm of the unspoken… the realm of the DIVINE!"
I suspect Israel understands that Wonder is a jazz composer, directly channeling the American idiom, because he himself is a man in touch with the music of here and now as well as the "what if?" and "just maybe." For example: "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," which whenever it's played pleases anyone in earshot, receives slight modification from Israel, other than being put in the unusual meter of 7/4.
In contrast, Israel introduces "Contusion", with qualities of the Avant-garde, through his use of percussion and bell tones, he is joined by Mahdi and Gardony’s collective improvisation, before the intricate melody is played by the ensemble. Israel leads Gardony into a Latin-flavor episode, before arriving at a loose, African-inflected underpinning to Bryant's improvisation and then enforces Zappa-like tight ensemble play for the concluding passages on which he drums up a storm. Yoron is also firmly propulsive on "Passionate Raindrops" (from Wonder's 2005 album A Time to Love) accenting Hogarth's harmonica with and without the support of Bryant's soprano sax, and provides accents plus buoyancy to "Where Were You When I Needed You," on which Bryant, then Gardony explore where "you" might have been and why it mattered.
This uplifting set ends with "Visions Reprise" Larry Roland's voice, Bryant's horn, Gardony's chords, Mahdi's throb and Israel's rim-shots reassert the promise and purpose of this music. "To me, it's about touching people, making a difference," Yoron contends. "If they hear something that makes them smile, that's what it's all about. Healing comes through that. Take five minutes a day to focus on an emotion that's positive, and something is healed. It may be just a small part of what troubles you, but every little bit helps. That's my vision." It's also Stevie Wonder's, and if you smile when you listen it will be your vision, too.
– Howard Mandel